Question: I enjoy watching the hummingbirds that visit my feeder. Are there herbs I can grow that will attract them to my yard?
Answer: Hummingbirds sip nectar from many herbs that produce tubular flowers, including most members of the mint and sage families as well as lavender and mallows. Four spectacular herbs will invite hummingbirds to visit your garden again and again: red bee balm (Monarda didyma), pineapple sage (Salvia elegans), hummingbird sage (Salvia guaranitica) and anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). All these plants are easy to grow and feature aromatic leaves in addition to nectar-rich blossoms.
Native to eastern North America, bee balm also is called bergamot. A perennial hardy to Zone 4, bee balm grows best in rich, fertile soil that holds moisture well. Take care not to plant bee balm or other hummingbird plants near entryways, however, because in addition to hummingbirds, bee balm attracts bees.
Bee balm has a reputation for being susceptible to powdery mildew, but several cultivars offer good resistance and the deep-red flowers hummingbirds love. These include ‘Gardenview Scarlet’, which grows 3 feet tall and blooms in midsummer, and dark red ‘Jacob Kline’. The leaves of bee balm make a refreshing tea, and the blossoms are colorful additions to potpourri.
The same sage you grow for cooking will be visited by hummingbirds when it blooms, yet there are other sages (also called salvias) that are essential in a hummingbird garden. One of the best, pineapple sage, usually is grown as an annual from seeds started indoors in spring. Pineapple sage thrives in full sun to partial shade, and it’s easily grown in containers, too. In late summer, the plants will erupt with 4-foot-tall spikes of dazzling red blossoms.
Another salvia, S. guaranitica, sometimes is called hummingbird sage because it’s so irresistible to hummingbirds. The leaves have a mellow anise scent, and the flowers are a deep purplish blue rather than red — proof that hummingbirds see other colors besides red. Hummingbird sage will bloom from midsummer to frost if old flowers are snipped off every week or so. A tender perennial hardy only to Zone 7, in most climates it’s best to grow hummingbird sage like pineapple sage, from seeds sown indoors in spring. Some gardeners in cold climates pot up the plants in late summer and keep them in an unheated garage until spring. When handled this way, plants often grow for two years before they become woody and weak. Before this happens, take stem cuttings from the new growth that emerges in spring and set them to root in damp potting soil.
Native to the Southwest, anise hyssop is but one of several species of Agastache ideal for herb gardens that also must stand up to drought. Anise hyssop bears edible anise-scented leaves and pinkish-blue flowers, and thrives in strong sun that makes other plants wilt. Hardy to Zone 4 with winter mulch, anise hyssop forms well-behaved clumps that are best dug and divided every other year.
In addition to this species, new types of agastache are being introduced every year. One of the heaviest blooming of the group is a hybrid called ‘Blue Fortune’, hardy to Zone 6, which features 3-foot-tall spikes of pinkish blue flowers that hummingbirds love.
Hummingbirds also are drawn to the deep-orange blossoms of sunset hyssop (Agastache rupestris), which sometimes is called root beer hyssop because of the scent of its leaves. Indeed, if you run across any plant labeled as an agastache at a garden center, it is worth a try as a hummingbird herb.
Barbara Pleasant lives in the mountains of western North Carolina, where she enjoys garden writing, cooking and luring hummingbirds to her garden.