This article originally appeared in CAPPER'S July 10, 2001.
There are many things in the garden I anticipate seeing each year before the Kansas wind and heat rob them of their luster - the Juddi viburnum blooming, the appearance of the fall-planted bulbs, and the lush, new growth of the perennials. But one of the most astonishing sights is a side effect of the garden plants - the return of the hummingbirds.
I find it hard to believe that a bird that weighs approximately as much as a penny will leave my yard in the middle of the United States each fall, travel thousands of miles to Mexico or South America for the winter, and then make the return trip to the Lang residence in the spring.
Hummingbirds, of course, get their name from the humming sound produced by their wings, which can flap up to 150 times a second. The tremendous activity of the hummingbird requires it to feed every 10 to 15 minutes during the day. The birds consume half their weight in food, and many times their weight in water daily.
Many people notice that the feeding activity of hummingbirds is heightened at sunset. The build-up of reserves at dusk, along with a decrease in heart rate and body temperature, allows them to make it through the night without starving.
Flower nectar is the main component of a hummingbird's diet, but it also feeds on insects to receive the protein necessary for its diet. The solution of sugar and water that we use in hummingbird feeders closely resembles that of flower nectar.
Those who don't want to purchase the nectar can make a homemade version using one part granulated sugar to four parts water. Boiling the solution is recommended to help dissolve the sugar. There is no need to add the red food coloring sometimes suggested: Hummingbirds are attracted to the red color of the feeder base, where the drinking ports are located. Some experts think the red food coloring could be a cause of cancer in the birds.
A common misconception is that gardeners need to take down the feeders early in the fall so the hummers won't be tempted into staying too late in the season. The feeders we put out are only a small portion of the birds' diet. The main portion of their diet is nectar produced by flowers in our gardens, which begin to wane as the time for migration comes near.
Red and orange blossoms seem to attract hummingbirds best, but they can be found feeding on blooms of any color. The hummingbird favors long, tubular flowers, such as those found on honeysuckle. Flowers like these tend to hold more nectar than other types of blossoms. To assure a constant source of hummingbird food for the summer, plan your garden so there are flowers blooming throughout the season.
Plants that attract hummingbirds are:
• Trees - crabapple, hawthorn, red buckeye and tulip tree.
• Shrubs - glossy abelia, buddleia, yucca, honeysuckle, weigela and azalea.
• Vines - honeysuckle, morning glory and trumpet vine.
• Perennials - bee balm, butterfly weed, coral bells, hollyhock, lobelia, hosta, penstemon, foxglove and day lily.
• Annuals - Begonia, canna, cleome, geranium, impatiens, nicotina, red salvia, lantana and petunia.
My favorite plant to watch hummingbirds hover over is the goldflame honeysuckle. The large, flame-red blooms occur throughout the growing season, making the plant a virtual hummingbird magnet. I remember watching hummingbirds on my parents' honeysuckle for hours at a time when I was growing up. Talk about cheap entertainment!