A wintering Anna’s hummingbird searches for a blossom or a thawed hummingbird feeder in 2012. (Gary M. Ciminski)

How to attract hummingbirds and brighten your winter garden

By Pam Roy

Special to the Herald

In the Pacific Northwest, gardeners delight in attracting hummingbirds to their yards to feed during warm, sunny summers. Yet some people forget that of the hummers found in our area, one species — the Anna’s hummingbird — stays throughout the winter.

With planning, a variety of plants can be incorporated into the garden that will provide nourishment for these overwintering hummingbirds during the cold and dim months, and brighten up the landscape for our enjoyment, as well.

From October through early December, I watch the morning show as hummers hover in the small tree near my studio.

They make a quick dive to the flowers of the arubutus unedo compacta (strawberry tree) nearby. The small, white urn shaped flowers offer nectar for both hummingbirds and bees at a time of year when there are not many other blossoms available. The flowers are followed by bright orange-red rounded fruits, somewhat resembling strawberries.

Arbutus unedo compacta grows to about 8 feet tall by 6 feet wide in 10 years, possibly larger with age. Give it a spot with sun or open shade. It will tolerate sandy soil or clay, but prefers a well-drained location. Arbutus unedo may be damaged by unusually cold temperatures in our climate. This plant can be a great addition to a hedgerow.

The striking winter-blooming plant mahonia x media “winter sun” is an absolute hummingbird magnet. The vibrant sprays of yellow flowers appear in late autumn and continue into December. As the name suggests, mahonia “winter sun” likes sun or part shade and will be drought tolerant once established.

The bold, sculptural form can be a focal point or a background plant growing to 7 feet tall by 4 feet wide in 10 years. Plant mahonia x media “faith” and mahonia x media “charity” nearby to extend the flowering period into January.

Flowers are followed by glossy, dark blue berries that provide food for birds, as well as a feast for the eye. Watching a couple of hummingbirds feeding at the mahonia winter sun outside my office window offers a cheerful interlude on a cloudy, gray day.

What about jazzing things up with some exotically shaped cherry red flowers? The unusual, spidery flowers of grevillea “canberra gem” bloom all winter, and continue to bloom sporadically throughout the entire year. Hummingbirds love these.

This native Australian plant is hardy to around 12 degrees in Western Washington and would benefit from being planted in a sheltered location. Well-draining soil will increase its hardiness to cold. Grevillea anberra gem tolerates dry conditions, does well in full sun or light shade and grows to a rounded shape of 4 feet tall by 7 feet wide.

This plant, with its unusual flowers and year-round blooms, attracts both hummingbirds and appreciative comments.

As winter continues, the white flowers of the evergreen shrub sarcococca provides nourishment for hummers, as well a wonderfully vanilla scented blossoms during January and February.

Plant this in a shaded or partly shaded location near a path or window to enjoy the fragrance while the hummingbirds are feasting. Sarcococca confusa, with the common name sweet box, is drought tolerant when established and has glossy, dark green leaves growing to height of 3 feet. A lower variety of sarcococca is also available to use a groundcover.

Witchhazel is a mid- to late-winter favorite of hummingbirds and gardeners alike. The “Diane” variety (Hamamelis x intermedia “Diane”) produces fabulous coppery red flowers displayed on bare branches. Witchhazels like sun or light shade.

They can be used as an understory plant under a high canopy or as a center piece in a planting bed. Witchhazels come in a variety of flower colors. Hamamelis Arnold promise has bright yellow flowers, also appealing to hummingbirds.

In late March, on the cusp of spring, the native red-flowering currant, ribes sanguineum, becomes a main attraction to our overwintering hummingbirds. Bright pink buds open to pink flowers with a spicy fragrance. Its best flowering will be in full sun, but it also will bloom in light shade.

What else can the gardener offer hummingbirds during winter months? The birds nest in evergreens and like to have cover. Plant a variety of evergreen shrubs ranging in height from 4 to 12 feet tall.

In addition to nectar from blossoms, they need protein, obtained from eating insects and spiders. Add a few conifers to the landscape to allow for foraging for these insects along the branches. Some conifers for the small garden could be tsuga mertensiana, our native mountain hemlock, picea abies (Norway spruce), a narrow growing conifer good for smaller spaces, or pinus contorta, our native lodgepole pine.

Gift your garden with some hummingbird-friendly plants this holiday season and enjoy the beauty the birds give to your landscape.

Pam Roy of Planscapes is an award-winning landscape designer with over 30 years of experience. Email her at info@planscapesdesign.com or call her at 425-252-9468. Go to www.planscapesdesign.com for more.

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