A winter visit from a hummingbird is a rare treat that seems impossible and magical. Yet in fact Anna’s hummingbirds have become common winter residents in the Pacific Northwest. What better excuse to plant a winter flowering palette than to feed the hummingbirds?
Why are they here?
Anna’s are the only species of hummingbird that winters in this region, and their range has been extending northwards only in the past century. Their story described here is an interesting one of adaptation to changing landscapes, first following blue gum eucalyptus north through California, and then over the decades continuing north to Seattle and even Vancouver BC. This changing migration pattern is thought to have been made possible by urban hummingbird feeders and by winter flowering ornamentals in urban gardens. Still, this sounds like a pretty tenuous existence for a tiny creature in a cold landscape. Personally, I was very relieved to learn that hummingbirds eat insects too! Think of both nectar and insects when providing for hummingbirds in the winter.
Plants for a winter hummingbird garden
While sugar feeders are sure to attract these small birds, you can also give them natural nectar by planting a simple palette of winter flowering plants. As an added bonus these plants will also house and feed the small insects that hummingbirds eat, provide places for them to shelter and perch, and overall make a larger contribution to your local ecosystem than a sugar feeder ever could. There is a long list of hummingbird plants for the warm months, so by choosing these hardy and reliable winter-blooming species you can truly create a year round garden.
September – December: Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo)
This Mediterranean relative of our native Madrone typically blooms September through December, and the sweet honey-scent of its nectar is a surprising winter treat. Hummingbirds think so as well. In the summer, it has plentiful and colorful fruit, which is edible but somewhat bland, and great fun for kids. Strawberry tree is drought tolerant, evergreen, and thrives in full sun to part shade.
November – March: Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
This favorite culinary herb, native to the Mediterranean, blooms November through March in Portland, handily spanning the winter months and attracting hummingbirds along the way. For the Pacific Northwest be sure to choose a variety that is sufficiently cold hardy, such as ‘Arp’. Check the tag and make sure that it is hardy in your climate (USDA Zone 7 in Portland). Rosemary is incredibly easy to grow, as long as you give it lots of neglect. It is drought tolerant, evergreen, and thrives in full sun.
December – February: Leatherleaf Mahonia (Mahonia × media ‘Lionel Fortescue’)
This hybrid of two Asian Mahonia species (M. japonica and M. lomariifolia) creates a stunning winter display from December through February, with bright yellow blooms that the hummingbirds love. It is a tough evergreen plant for sun to part shade, with ornamental leaves all year long. It is related to our native Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium, nervosa, etc.) which has similar yellow flowers that is great early season bee food.
January – March: Manzanita Austin Griffiths (Arctostaphylos manzanita x densiflora ‘Austin Griffiths’)
A west coast native, this stately and architectural selection of manzanita has beautiful dark red bark, and pink bell shaped flowers that bloom exceptionally early, beginning in January. Other manzanita species bloom slightly later, but are likewise useful hummingbird food. Like all manzanitas it is evergreen, drought tolerant, and prefers sun.
Other season extenders to consider:
Heaths and Heathers (winter bloom)
Ribes sanguineum/Red flowering currant (early spring)
Zauschneria/Hummingbird Fuschia (late fall)
Penstemon (certain selections late fall)
Knifofia/Poker Plant (certain selections late fall)
Blooming Nursery is a local plant grower that provides a very useful online plant search tool. Use this tool to flesh out your year round hummingbird palette, with plant descriptions that include the bloom time, and the ability to search for hummingbird, pollinator, and other wildlife benefits: http://www.bloomingadvantage.com/plantFinderList.asp