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Heirloom Hummingbird Plants: Not What I Expected


I like hummingbirds, but I feel uneasy about giving them sugar water in feeders. For starters, sugar water doesn’t seem like good nutrition for them; for another, you have to be sure the sugar water is fresh and not fermented by heat. I’m sorry to say that I’m not the kind of person who can be trusted to remember and take care of that.

So one of the qualifiers for my garden list is flowers that will nourish birds, particularly hummingbirds.

I can’t say I’ve actually done a lot to attract hummingbirds, but I  accidentally chose two heirloom bulbs which are shaping up to be hummingbird plants par excellence. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get pictures while the hummingbirds were actually working them, so you’ll have to take my word for it. But hummingbirds did work both these flowers, with enthusiasm, and came back for more.

The one at the top of the page is ‘Atom’ glad.

I didn’t use to like glads. I associated them with those stiff spiky arrangements that put you off at formal events such as weddings and funerals.

Maybe that sterile association is what made me so surprised to see a hummingbird working my ‘Atom’ glads. I mean, they’re red, right? Hummingbird color? But I just never associated glads with nectar and pollinations, somehow.

But my bulbomania, and the enticing descriptions at Old House Gardens and Brent and Becky’s got me interested in glads. Especially the old-fashioned hybrids that used to be called primulus, from a species with more graceful, smaller spikes and hooded flowers. Though the catalogues don’t mention it, ‘Atom’ looks like one of these hybrids to me.


It’s unfortunate that I didn’t get a picture of a hummer on these glads: just never happened at the right moment. But they were faithful, if irregular, visitors. If you choose to plant this heirloom glad, you may get the same bonus.

‘Citronella’ lily was another surprise hummingbird attraction.


This is a hummingbird’s view of the flower. I hadn’t even thought of hummingbirds being attracted to a lily, much less a downfacing yellow one.  But the hanging lily heads gave me an extra-good show one morning as a hummingbird worked it: I could see the hummer fully, as it was hovering underneath the lily with only its beak stuck up into the flower. For a moment it stopped to rest on the lily stalk: it was only a little bigger than one of the buds. (My camera and I were parted that morning, so no pictures. Some things just need to hide in the magic of the moment.)

‘Citronella’ was bred by Jan de Graaf, in 1958. He was the first major lily breeder in the United States (before that, species lilies were grown in quantity, but there wasn’t a lot of hybridization). It’s an Asiatic lily, with parents L. davidii var. unicolor and L. amabile var. luteum. Ed McRae, one of the inheritors of de Graaf’s mantle, describes it as “pendant to outfacing golden yellows of exceptional form and beauty.”

Still, I was hesitant to get Citronella, since it isn’t fragrant, and in  my small garden I like it if every plant serves at least two purposes.

But I’ve come to trust de Graaf hybrids for their grace, and Citronella wasn’t too pricey, so I popped for some.

It turns out Citronella  does serve two purposes. One: it’s beautiful, and at least in its first year filled in that lily blank between the trumpets and the other kinds of lilies. Two: it’s hummingbird food, and a whole lot more nutritious than sugar water. Fun to watch, too.

I recommend both these bulbs as easy to grow, beautiful, and attractive to hummingbirds. Who knew?



{ 11 comments… add one }

  • tina August 11, 2009, 3:55 am

    It’s beautiful that red color. I love it! I can see why the hummers love it too.

  • Town Mouse August 11, 2009, 7:35 am

    I swear my hummingbirds are color blind. Yes, the come to the California fuchsia and the Abutilon like they’re supposed to, but they also love a blue Salvia, Agapanthus, and a light pink Tea tree. Go figure.

    Love the lily! Maybe that would be perfect for the Gardening Gone Wild photo contest ;->

  • Susie August 11, 2009, 10:24 am

    I agree, great shots, enter in the Gardening Gone Wild photo contest! I try to think of the hummers in my garden too, we just love hearing them whizz on by & entertain us with their visits. I agree with the sugar water comment…if it’s not good for us how can it possibly be good for the hummers.

  • Helen at Toronto Gardens August 11, 2009, 12:26 pm

    If I were a hummingbird, I’d make a humming-beeline to all those beauties. Instead, I’m a sad woman with a coldpack on my head and a migraine, distracted from it only by these glorious flowers.

  • Pomona Belvedere August 11, 2009, 5:51 pm

    Thanks for mentioning the Gardening Gone Wild photo contest, I like this month’s theme: I’m always on my knees or belly or in even more undignified positions photographing plants, and it will be fun to see what everybody else does.

    Tina, I love the red of ‘Atom’ too, which kind of surprised me, as I’m not generally keen on red flowers. These just get to me.

    Town Mouse, thanks for the hummingbird-plant suggestions, and I guess this puts to rest the idea that hummingbird flowers have to be red.

    Susie, glad to know someone’s with me on the nutritional value of sugar water for birds. I’ve never seen this in any book on birds, but it just doesn’t make sense to me that they would do well just on this.

    Helen, if my photos have distracted you from a migraine, I’m indeed complimented – but sorry it comes at such a cost to you. I don’t get migraines, but am close to people who do, and mercy they are debilitating.

  • Frances August 12, 2009, 2:42 pm

    Hi Pomona, thanks so much for letting us know that these are also hummer favorites. It makes sense, with the trumpet shape on the glad, but the citronella lily, who knew? We did see a hummer on our orange tiger lily, a surprise as well. Your photos are definitely contest worthy! :-)

  • Barbee' August 13, 2009, 6:51 am

    Pomona, thank you for this delightful post and information. That is very interesting, and useful. Also, I have mentioned you in my new post. Hope that is ok, and hope you have a chance to come over and check it out.

  • Cyd August 13, 2009, 8:19 am

    Those are really beautiful glads, you’re right in that they don’t look like the usual. They have a tropical look. Hummingbird photos are so hard to get its almost better that you didn’t. They are magical little creatures and I have had great sucess with bee balm and larkspur to bring them back year after year.

  • Sheri August 16, 2009, 9:44 am

    Great tips! I’ve been looking for a gladiolus to lend some height and textural variety to my salvia-dominated hummingbird garden. Some wild glads are pollinated by sunbirds (Old World songbirds that fill an ecological niche similar to that of hummingbirds), but nectar production is often lost in the quest for bigger, more colorful, and more abundant flowers. Looks like ‘Atom’ might fill the bill (literally). Citronella’s ancestors don’t seem to be bird pollinated, but the endangered Western Lily (Lilium occidentale) of California and Oregon is primarily pollinated by hummingbirds.

    Gardening requires its own level of commitment, of course, but the flowers-only option is absolutely the right one for anyone who’s not prepared to clean and refill feeders two to four times a week. Feeders aren’t depriving the birds of nutrition, though. In the nectar of bird-pollinated flowers, the dominant ingredients are water and sugars. Hummingbirds get their “hard” nutrition from eating insects, spiders, and other invertebrates, so all they really need from nectar is sugar for energy. Luckily for us, white table sugar is sucrose, the dominant sugar in the nectar of hummingbird-pollinated flowers.

    Renate, hummingbirds will visit flowers of any color as long as they can get good-quality nectar from them. Hummingbird-pollinated flowers tend to be red because it’s not as conspicuous to most insect competitors.

  • wayne August 25, 2009, 4:03 pm

    interesting read as always… love the bird’s eye view of the lily

  • the flowerman November 9, 2011, 7:26 pm

    Russelia a prolific nectar source highly desired by hummingbirds. The small red blooms attract hummers like a magnet.

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