Native Plants for Hummingbirds

| Colorado Native Plants, Flower Interest, Native Landscape Planning & Design, Uncategorized

By Kate Hogan*

I started my home garden native plant conversion back in 2015 – I foolishly decided to attempt to replant my entire front and back garden beds to exclusively Colorado and New Mexico native plants while on maternity leave with my second child, which happened to be September of that year.  We had inherited a stereotypical non-native rose hedge, some invasive mint, and a couple of shrubs (don’t even recall the species) embedded in rock in the front of our house. Living in a cookie-cutter subdivision south of the Denver-Metro area, I assessed what I had to work with in terms of pollinator habitat – a native Aspen (Populus deltoides) tree in my neighbor’s yard; Lilac bushes and non-native juniper shrubs in the parking islands around our cul-de-sac; Chokecherry nativar trees planted in many of the front yards; and conventional turf grass (though thankfully our smaller lots minimize the square footage of total turf).  

I began as the Community Outreach Coordinator (turned manager in 2022) with Denver Audubon in 2014, my knowledge of native plants and hummingbirds almost non-existent. I was NOT hired because of my knowledge of local flora and fauna at the time, but I did know how to run a volunteer program, coordinate large special events and run educational classes. I spent my first year diligently learning many of the native (and non-native) plants in our demonstration gardens, as well as embarking on a beginning birdwatching journey – my undergrad degree in Natural Science and Biology prepped me to learn new species wherever my career happened to take me (Australian outback, rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, and the various life zones in Colorado). Our Audubon Master Birder and then owner of Front Range Birding Company, Tom Bush, began teaching me a thing or two about creating hummingbird habitat. Upon reflection, this was a wise place to start, because hummingbirds are often referred to as “the gateway drug to the birding world,” and I have yet to find someone in the Denver-metro area who isn’t interested in attracting more hummingbirds to their property!

Armed with new knowledge in early summer of 2015, I re-assessed my own property and found a severe lack of pollinator plants within the framework of our neighborhood, as well as most of the properties directly surrounding me. This probably isn’t surprising to many if not most of you! I went to my local garden center and started poking around utilizing a native plant landscaping list and much to my surprise, despite showing all the proper scientific names to the staff, they told me they didn’t have . . . any of it.  They directed me to some Plant Select plants, a couple of which (though natives or nativars to New Mexico) have proven to be favorites among my local hummingbirds, including Sunset Hyssop (Agastache rupestris) and Pineleaf Penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius). These curious observations made while watching my backyard nesting Broad-tailed female hummingbird and her offspring favor these New Mexico native plants leads to a greater understanding of hummingbird migration and the movement of pollen across the Western US – the Sonoran Desert Museum speaks about the critical role that hummingbirds play in facilitating long-distance pollination:

“They serve as MOBILE LINKS between plant populations in different landscapes, facilitating pollen and gene flow often over considerable distances.” 

~ Sonoran Desert Museum, Migratory Pollinators Program

Broad-tailed Hummingbird on Showy Milkweed by Ron Beller

Hummingbirds migrate hundreds or thousands of miles across the continent, feeding on localized plant populations across many states along the way!  Spring migration brings Broad-tailed and Black-chinned hummingbirds to Colorado for spring and summer nesting opportunities. We often think of “fall” migration happening sometime in August or September, but observations of Rufous and Calliope hummingbirds can begin as early as the first week of July in Colorado. The adult males often observed first are already headed back South through the state after leaving areas of Northern Canada, Alaska, and parts of the Pacific Northwest. They travel Northward in spring along the Pacific Coast so we have very limited if any observations of these species earlier in the year.  

Calliope Hummingbird at Nature Center by Rob Palmer

At our Kingery Nature Center demonstration gardens located within Chatfield State Park, some of the Colorado native shrub species such as Golden Currant (Ribes aureum), Wax Currant (Ribes cereum), and American Plum (Prunus americana) all begin blooming in early to mid-April, perfectly timed with the arrival of the male Broad-tailed hummingbirds. Something like Scarlet Gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata), I’ve observed blooming as late as mid-September, which can support young Broad-tailed and Black-chinned hummingbirds as they prepare for their first migration journey upon leaving Colorado. Bloom times are of course impacted by your local microclimate and other seasonal factors, so many native plants have quite the range of expected bloom times. Hummingbirds are incredibly adept at moving with seasonal blooms and even variations from year to year. They have amazing spatial memory to recall where local food resources might reside from season to season, and a recent study in 2021 found that though hummingbirds were previously believed to have no sense of smell (like many birds in fact), they can actually pick up on chemical scent cues in sugar water feeders. Further research is needed to assess if they indeed are also using scent cues (as opposed to just visual) to find their wild food sources!

Finally, one of the most critical reasons for providing native plants for hummingbirds is the truth about their wild diet composition – given which study you read, there are claims that anywhere from 30 to 80 percent of a hummingbird’s diet is INSECT based. A blog post from a few years back explains research going back to the 1940’s assessing content of deceased hummingbird stomachs, as well as watching and making observation of wild hummingbirds. Over the past 20 years, the ecological research connecting the critical nature of native plants to native insects continues to grow – by reviving the landscape with native plants, it not only provides critical nectar resources for hummingbirds but also critical insect and other arthropod resources for these tiny powerhouses. So I will leave you with this final thought:

“When the Spanish first encountered hummingbirds they called them Resurrection Birds — for surely something this shining and perfect died each night and was reborn the next morning . . . Every day, we can witness miracles. Each day, we can participate in resurrection, in mending the broken world.”

– Sy Montgomery, Author

Let’s do it!  Let’s mend the broken world and the broken landscapes by resurrecting native plants into our communities – for hummingbirds and pollinators across Colorado. Here are some of our favorite hummingbird plants below, though we encourage you to check out our entire list at Denver Audubon, Native Plants for Birds.

Early Season:

  • Golden Currant, Ribes aureum, spring yellow blooms attract hummingbirds 
  • Wax Currant, Ribes cereum, spring pink blooms attract hummingbirds 

Mid to Late Season:

  • Rocky Mountain Penstemon, Penstemon strictus
  • Beebalm, Monarda fistulosa
  • Showy Milkweed, Asclepias speciosa
  • Rocky Mountain Bee Plant, Cleome serrulata
  • Scarlet Gilia, Ipomopsis aggregata
  • Dotted Gayfeather, Liatris punctata

References:  Audubon Plants for Birds; Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds, Online bird guide, bird ID help, life history, bird sounds from Cornell All About Birds; Colorado Native Plant Society, Gardening with Native Plants – Colorado Native Plant Society (; US National Science Foundation, Hummingbirds can smell their way out of danger | NSF – National Science Foundation ;

*Kate Hogan has worked in the field of environmental education for over 20 years.  She holds a B.S. Degree in Natural Science and Biology from the University of Puget Sound and a M.S. Degree in Nonprofit Management from Regis University. For the last eight years, Kate has worked at Denver Audubon as the Community Outreach Manager, where she creates strategic partnerships that help fulfill the organization’s mission to “inspire actions to protect birds, other wildlife, and their habitats through education, conservation, and research.”  She presents outreach programs throughout the Denver metro area and manages the Kingery Nature Center at Chatfield, providing public programs and events for visitors who desire a deeper connection to nature.