There’s something magical about a garden graced with hummingbirds. As they dart between flowers and zip by at impossible speeds, they’re letting you know you’ve done something right. The Southwest, and especially southern Arizona, is fortunate in having around 14 different species of hummingbirds, but it only takes one to bring that magic to gardeners.
During most of the warm season, hummingbirds’ food supply of flower nectar and tiny insects is abundant in most gardens, and allowing the hummers to fend for themselves is not a problem. They are experts at finding—and defending—their favorite food sources. But even in the warmer parts of the Southwest where hummingbirds are year-round residents, winter’s chill can reduce nectar sources significantly. This season is thankfully brief—by March, well-planned desert gardens are awash in flowers and the lean days are over.
Supplementing hummingbirds’ winter resources with sugar water in feeders reduces their stress and provides hours of entertainment. Just make sure to do it right; provide only pure sugar water—no red dyes—and change the water frequently. Even with feeders, I still like to make sure hummingbirds have as many natural resources as possible. Here are a handful of flowers that have frequently been in bloom between November and March in my Tucson garden. Keep in mind that not every location or every winter season is the same. Some years will have abundant flowers and others may have more sporadic blooms. Variety is the key to ensuring that something will be available to hummingbirds at all times.
Calliandra spp. and cvs., Zones 7b–11
Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica, Zones 9–11) is the bright red cousin to our Southwest-native fairy duster, Calliandra eriophylla (Zones 7b–11). Baja fairy duster is larger and more vigorous in most situations. Though winter weather does slow it down, mine are never without flowers, especially when grown in warm microclimates. It can sometimes freeze back in colder areas of Zone 9, but it’s durable and quick to recover. On the other hand, the pink-flowered C. eriophylla typically has a brief dormant season and flowers late winter through spring. Plant them both!
Eucalyptus spp. and cvs., Zones 8–11
Lemon-flowered gum (Eucalyptus woodwardii, Zones 8b–11) and coral gum (Eucalyptus torquata, Zones 8b–11) are probably not on most people’s lists of desired plants, but these two beautiful species are excellent nectar sources for both hummingbirds and bees. They are not scary, giant eucalyptus trees; rather, they are just the right size for most gardens. Lemon-flowered gum is slender and grows to 20 feet tall with powdered gray leaves and lemon-yellow blooms on weeping branches. Coral gum is upright and rounded, growing 15 to 20 feet tall and wide with flowers ranging from soft pink to deep rose to coral. A hybrid between these two species, known as ‘Torwood’ gum or ‘Torwood’ eucalyptus (Eucalyptus ‘Torwood’, Zones 8b–11) has flowers that are a soft pinkish orange. Flowers can occur any time of year. With several trees, I frequently have abundant flowers for a long season from winter through spring. These plants are very heat and drought tolerant in Zone 8b and above.
Justicia spp. and cvs., Zones 8–11
There are three justicias that make my list, and while winter may not be their peak bloom season, mine are never without flowers. Beloperone (Justicia californica, Zones 8–10) is a scrambling native shrub that starts blooming midwinter on its leafless (and brittle) stems, and the hummers are quick to flock to it. Red justicia (Justicia candicans, Zones 9–10) holds scarlet-red, three-lobed flowers atop its upright stems, forming a compact shrub. This plant seems always to be in some stage of bloom in my garden, thriving even in unirrigated partial shade. Mexican honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera, Zones 8–11) hails from Mexico, with bright green leaves and flame-orange blooms. With a moderate bit of water and shelter, this plant is nearly everblooming as well.
Gladiolus splendens, Zones 9–11
This species of gladiolus is quiet and refined, unlike those that shout for attention from overstaged funeral arrangements. The small bulbs of this species return each winter in my garden, their leafy spears rising steadily from bare soil through November. This plant’s scarlet flowers start blooming in midwinter and last through spring. They never escape the hummingbirds’ attention!
Russelia equisetiformis, Zones 9–11
Firecracker plant is a powerhouse of flowers. Its wispy arching sprays of green foliage drip with bright red blooms for most of the year. Best planted in full sun but fairly adaptable, firecracker plant appreciates a routine watering schedule. There are several color forms and cultivars out there, but I always come back to this original species for its full habit and abundant blooms.
Try any one of these bright, colorful flowers to attract hummingbirds to your garden this winter. For more on attracting pollinators in the Southwest, check out:
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—Dan Johnson lives and gardens in Denver and in Tucson, Arizona. He is an associate director of horticulture for the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Photos: Dan Johnson