Red roses, classic. Red geraniums, iconic.
But that’s where it ends for many gardeners. Red in the garden can be considered old-fashioned or fuddy-duddy. It’s been poo-pooed as gauche or vulgar by refined plantspeople. Sure they’ll go for wine-stained coleus or Bonfire begonias. And folks get giddy over chocolate cosmos in shades of Marsala, the bloody-brown 2015 Pantone Color of the Year.
Yet you might say pure red is the equivalent of a horticultural stop sign. But hey–ho, hummingbirds love red flowers! Relax!
I decided to test out a few fire-engine red flowers this season. I wanted to see if they did indeed draw in the hummingbirds as advertised. The results were mixed.
A wild petunia from Brazil, it’s said to be the only petunia naturally pollinated by hummingbirds. Exserta is unusual with its reflexed petals and a distinctive yellow corona. Images of hummingbirds snarfing nectar from the matte red flowers abound. Alas, the bees loved it but I never saw a single hummer on the abundant blooms of this one in my garden. There’s no accounting for taste, no really, different birds in different regions do exhibit certain flower preferences. (Perhaps Exserta is too spicy for Minnesota birds…just kidding.) Annie’s Annuals was my original source but it has re-seeded so much that I might question the “rare” species designation.
Zinnia ‘Moulin Rouge Red’
These heirloom cutting zinnias are over my head, literally, six feet tall and bursting with blooms. Singles, doubles, spoony-shaped petals and so on; it’s a mixed bag with full-on red as the common denominator. Popular with bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. In fact I witnessed a hummingbird harassing a Monarch while it foraged on one of the blooms. There were only about 20 more flowers available but the tiny bird wanted that one. Interesting to note that a nearby patch of Zinnia ‘Benary’s Purple’ was hardly touched by any of the large number of pollinators present in my garden. (Note: I received these seeds free from Renee’s Garden Seeds to test in my garden.)
Salvia coccinea, Texas Sage
Dangerously similar to grandma-style red bedding salvias, it’s saving grace is a taller stem and looser blooms. Proving quite a hit with the bees, only a few hummingbirds were intrigued, in spite of being the perfect shape and color. It has self-seeded with abandoned and now pops up all over the kitchen garden. The other day the sun was rising low in the sky and focused a single beam on the sage plant. The little flared blooms seemed to catch fire. I ran to catch it but lost the light.
In garden design red is a color that appears to recede, sometimes sucking the life from beds or borders. It needs a deft hand to make it work. In my garden I was lucky that the red blooms played well with the orange/gray/red stripes of my patio umbrella.
Last thoughts: Yes, hummingbirds like red flowers. But while I was experimenting with these wild scarlet specimens, the hummingbirds in my garden were going gaga over a light pink/orange hyssop, Agastache ‘Summer Breeze’ (also from Annie’s), tropical bloodroot (technically half yellow-half red), Black and Blue Salvia and a white verbena. Go figure. The takeaway: Plant lots of flowers and observe the activity in your garden and those of your neighbors to find the perfect hummingbird bait.