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Jane's Garden 4/6/14: Springtime brings hummingbirds and honeysuckles

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Warm weather and longer days are welcome signs of spring anywhere. Gardeners delight in spring flowers, particularly if they did little maintenance other than preparing planting beds, amending soil and installing perennial and self-seeding flowering plants.

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Upon returning from a month-long birding trip to tropical Trinidad and Tobago on March 22, I was welcomed by a profusion of flowers in my abandoned garden.

The deciduous Turkey Oak, Quercus laevis, trees were just leafing out; it was too early to see any of the four native butterfly caterpillars which depend on these leaves for food.

A dozen Turkey Oaks were decorated in clusters of red, tubular Coral Honeysuckle flowers on evergreen native vines I had planted two years ago at the tree bases. Initially a bucket of fine mulch was dumped around each tree before planting the honeysuckle. Vines soon wound up the trunks, twining between the rough ridges of the bark. The Turkey Oak branches are naturally covered in epiphytes — harmless lichens, mosses and flowering air plants.

Coral Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, flowers during all months but most prolifically from February to June. Pull off a flower and nibble the bulbous base to taste the sweet nectar. This feeds large butterflies having long, tube-like, coiled proboscis and also Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, the only species documented as breeding in Florida.

Ruby-throateds can winter in south Florida, as there are enough nectar-bearing flowers there and no frosty mornings. They do not winter in Central Florida. Stray hummers occasionally seen in winter here are possibly rare Black-chinned but likely Rufous Hummingbirds at well-tended feeders.

There are about 320 species of hummingbirds occurring only in the Americas from southeast Alaska to Chile. About 12 species spend the summer in the United States, where there is ample flower nectar to feed them. Hummers weave an inch diameter, teacup-shaped nest of lichens or moss mingled with spider silk. The camouflaged nests are attached to small horizontal branches, often on Turkey Oaks. Hummingbird eggs are the size of Tic-Tacs. One to three eggs per brood is normal.

Boil a cup of white granulated cane sugar with 4 cups of well water, let it cool and fill a plastic hummingbird feeder. My artificial nectar feeder is suspended on a hook 6 feet from the front window. Within minutes, three Ruby-throateds were lapping nectar from the small feeder holes. They lap very rapidly like a dog. Their long tongues are not hollow straws. The large muscles to work the tongue wrap around to the backs of their heads. Close observation lets bird lovers see those muscles at work.

All by themselves, the hummers had found a garden with a natural supply of flower nectar in the Coral Honeysuckle flowers, plus suitable nest sites and building materials. I rarely use pesticides, so there are garden spiders to spin silk for the breeding hummers. There are lots of tiny flying insects for the hummers to catch to feed their growing nestlings. Hummers also eat protein-packed pollen and lap tree sap from holes drilled by sapsuckers and other woodpeckers. The artificial feeder is a bonus to lure them close to amuse gardeners.

Plants blooming by April include Florida Violet, Blue Spiderwort, Rain Lily, Redbud, Dogwood, Walter’s Viburnum, strawberries, azaleas and Indian Hawthorn. Coral Honeysuckle, Red Salvia and Cape Honeysuckle bloom in early spring. Their long, tubular, nectar-rich flowers attract hummingbirds.

Spring is a favorite time of the year for gardeners.

 

Jane Weber is a professional gardener and consultant. Semi-retired, she grows thousands of native plants. Visitors are welcome to her Dunnellon, Marion County, garden. For an appointment, call 352-249-6899 or contact JWeber12385@gmail.com.