Dishing the Dirt: Attracting Hummingbirds and Butterflies
By Jeff and Eileen Bidwell
For many passionate gardeners, there is no greater source of joy and inspiration than the sight of hummingbirds and butterflies in the summer garden. After all the digging, composting, planting and garden maintenance, the opportunity to relax, reflect and enjoy these magnificent creatures presents a welcome respite.
Anna’s Hummingbird is the most common species of hummingbird in Western Washington, and can be seen year-round. Adults grow to 4 inches in length with a 5 inch wingspan. These medium-sized hummingbirds have bronzy green backs and gray undersides. Males sport bright red heads and throats; females’ heads and throats are green.
The Rufous Hummingbird, a small, slender species, is far less common, and visits the Seattle area only in summer. These tiny birds reach 3 ½ inches long with wingspans of up to 4 ½ inches. Males are reddish-brown with green wings and white chests. Females have green backs and reddish-brown undersides. A fascinating fact: Rufous Hummingbirds make an annual journey from their winter homes in Northern Mexico to their breeding grounds in Alaska, approximately 3,900 miles. This migration, around 78 ½ million body lengths, is the longest known avian migration of any bird relative to its size.
There are numerous plants that will offer an ideal hummingbird habitat in gardens large and small, and entice these tiny birds to stay and thrive in your garden. Here is a list of easy to care for perennials (plants that return year after year,) that our local hummingbirds find irresistible:
Spring and Early Summer Blooming
Bleeding Heart—Dicentra spp. Bloom May-June, partial to full shade, average to dry soil.
Columbine—Aquilegia spp. and cultivars. Aquilegia formosa is the native Columbine. Bloom May-June, sun to partial shade, average to dry soil.
Foxglove—Digitalis purpurea and cultivars. Bloom May-June, sun or partial shade, average to dry soil. All parts of this plant are poisonous.
Honeysuckle--Lonicera spp. Bloom spring through summer, sun to partial shade, average soil.
Lavender—Lavendula spp. Blooms spring to summer, full sun, dry soil, moderate water.
Lupine—Lupinus spp. and hybrids. Blooms May to July, sun or partial shade, average to moist soils.
Midsummer and Fall Blooming
Agastache—Blooms July and August, full sun, heat, good drainage. Drought tolerant.
Balloon Flower—Platycodon spp. Blooms July-September, sun to partial shade, average to dry soil.
Beebalm—Monarda spp. and cultivars. Blooms June-July, sun to partial shade, average to moist soil.
Butterfly Weed—Asclepias tubersa. Blooms July-August, average to dry soil, requires excellent drainage.
Cape Fuschia—Phygelius x rectus cultivars. Blooms July-August, average to dry soil.
Cardinal Flower—Lobelia spp. and cultivars, Perennial Lobelia. Blooms July-September, sun to partial shared, average to moist soil.
Coral Bells—Heuchera spp. and cultivars. Blooms July-September, sun to partial shade, average to moist soil.
Crocosmia spp.—Blooms June-September, full sun, average to dry soil.
Hardy Fuschsia—Fuscshia magellanica varieties. Blooms July-October, partial to full shade, average to moist soil. Drought tolerant.
Hollyhock—Alcea spp. and varieties. Blooms May-July, sun to partial shade, drought tolerant.
Oregon Grape—Mahonia spp. Blooms July-August, shade, average to moist soil.
Penstemon—Penstemon spp. and varieties. Blooms June-September, sun to partial shade, average to dry soil, does well in sandy soil and gravel.
Phlox—Phlox spp. and cultivars. Blooms July-September, sun to partial shade, average to moist soil.
Sage—Salvia officinalis. Blooms July-August, full sun, lots of heat, well drained average to dry soil.
Healthy soil is essential to the success of these perennials. Since invasive weeds may kill these plants, it is also important to keep your hummingbird garden as free of weeds as possible.
You can also transform a garden of any size into a butterfly sanctuary by creating a habitat to attract them, and selecting and cultivating plants that are irresistible to these winged denizens of summertime.
Butterflies that inhabit the Puget Sound region include: Anise, or Mountain Swallowtail, Brown Elfin, Cabbage White, California Tortoiseshell, Clodius Parnassian, Faunus Anglewing, Gray Hairstreak, Lorquin’s Admiral, Milbert’s Tortoiseshell, Mourning Cloak Butterfly, Mylitta Crescent Spot, Ochre Ringlet, Painted Lady, Pine white, Purplish Copper, Red Admiral Sara’s Orange Tip, Satyr Anglewing, Spring Azure, Silvery Blue, Veined White, Western Tiger Swallowtail, West Coast Lady, and Woodland Skipper.
Butterflies prefer open, sunny areas that offer protection from wind, and flowers with flat surfaces or large petals that provide easy places to perch. Flowers with clustered florets are more likely to attract them then plants with single flowers. When planning your garden, it’s important to select a variety of plants that will feed both larvae and adults, and sustain them throughout their lifecycle from spring through late summer.
Butterflies need nectar-producing flowers, shrubs for protection, rotting fruit or tree sap, larval food plants, sunny spaces, and wet mud.
Nectar Sources for Adult Butterflies—Plants and Shrubs
Yellow alyssum; Beebalm; Wild Bergamot; Black-eyed Susan; Butterfly weed; Ceanothus; Chrysanthemum; Cow parsnip; Daylily; Michaelmas daisy, New England daisy; Fleabane; Honeysuckle; Lavender; Lilac; Marigold; Mint and other herbs; Pincushion flower; Red hot poker; Blue spirea; Stat ice; Thistles; Toadflax; Verbena and Zinnia. Avoid planting Buddleia davidii, or Butterfly Bush, which is extremely invasive and is considered a noxious weed.
A favorite of ours is Clematis Montana, a drought tolerant nectar plant which also provides nectar for hummingbirds.
For more information, please see WSU Community Horticultural Fact Sheet #84, “Butterfly Gardening”, a free resource available through the King County Master Gardener website, www.kingcountymg.org. This Fact Sheet includes a list of larval food plants.
Yes, neighbors, it has indeed been a long wait. Enjoy your lovely visitors this summer. Stop by the Master Gardener booth at the Ballard Sunday Farmers Market, or email
firstname.lastname@example.org, and let us know how your garden grows this year.
See you at the market.
Jeff and Eileen Bidwell are King County Master Gardeners and long-time Ballard residents. You can find the Master Gardener Plant Answer Clinic at the Ballard Sunday Farmers Market every Sunday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., May 1st through September 25th. Read past articles, here.