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Ask a Master Gardener: What Exactly Is a Hummingbird Plant?

Batface cuphea llavea CC by Bob Shrader

By: Alice Marty, Mobile County Master Gardener

They’re back!  Hummingbirds are being spotted all over lower Alabama communities.  Residents will be dusting off and filling their feeders in hopes of convincing the tiny flyers to take up residence in their yard for the summer. Gardeners are inspecting their favorite hummingbird plants to see that they made it through the extra cold spells of winter.  Or perhaps they are taking advantage of the many spring plant sales to purchase their favorite hummingbird plant. But what exactly is “a hummingbird plant” you ask?

Ask twenty gardeners and you may get twenty different answers.   A plant with tube shaped flowers leads that category.  Frequently, the flowers are red or yellow, but they can be almost any color.  A great plant blooms from spring to fall.  Being off the ground, as in hanging plants or vines, can be a safety asset to the tiny birds.

The two most visited hummingbird plants in my yard are Lonicera sempervirens and cuphea ignea. 

Lonicera sempervirens, known as coral honeysuckle is an evergreen vine native to the eastern United States. Coral honeysuckle, not to be confused with its nonnative, invasive Japanese cousin lonicera japonica, grows best in full sun, and well-drained, slightly acidic soils. It can reach up to 20 feet tall and 6 feet wide, depending on the support structure.  Its red blossoms with yellow centers flower on new growth, so it should be pruned after blooming.  The blooms form red berries that are gobbled up by birds but are not edible by humans.  It blooms from spring through fall, sometimes having an occasional winter bloom. In warm Southern climates, coral honeysuckle is evergreen, adding color and interest to winter gardens.

There are several hybrid varieties on the market, and it is considered an excellent pollinator plant. This vine also serves as a host plant for the larvae of spring azure butterflies and snowberry clearwing moths.

My coral honeysuckle vine is a favorite nesting spot for cardinals.  It has been in my garden for 20 plus years and is trained into a tree shape on a “T” shaped rebar trellis.

The second most visited plant, but not number two, is cuphea ignea, KOO-fee-ah ig-NEE-ah. This plant has so many common names.  Firecracker plant, cigar plant and just plain hummingbird plant are a few that are used.  It is a deciduous perennial native from Mexico and is constantly covered in multiple blooms from spring to winter freeze.   

The cuphea family of plants may be unknown to many of you.  New varieties seem to come out yearly in different shapes and sizes.  This year the variety Sweet Talk is new on the market.  It comes in three colors, red, pink, and violet, and is small enough for containers but large enough to be a specimen plant. 

Cupheas are perennials and annuals, depending on where you live.  The ignea variety is winter hardy in the climate zone 9 Mobile area.  It grows to about 3 feet high and 2-3 feet wide.  Cutting it to the ground in the early spring ensures new compact growth all summer long.  It does not need deadheading.

Cuphea micropetala, or Candy Corn plant is larger than the cuphea ignea.  It can reach 4 ft. high and wide. The larger blossoms resemble candy corn in colors of yellow and orange.  This plant blooms later in the summer and lasts through Halloween giving the garden a bit of autumn color.

Noted for its unique flower shape, cuphea llavea or Batface cuphea blossoms are adorned with two red, ear shaped petals and a purple calyx. It is easy to imagine a bat face staring back at you. The plants round shape can be used as a single planting or in a hanging planter.

Cuphea plants are easy to grow.  The heat loving plants will do well in full sun or partial sun with moderate waterings and fertilizers.  More sun does lead to more blossoms. They are not fussy about soil type and can be found in nurseries and garden centers throughout the Mobile area.  May you attract many hummingbirds to your garden!

Cuphea micropetala CC by Cathy DeWitt

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