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Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds and Black and Blue Sage: The Attraction is Mutual

Updated on April 9, 2016
M G Del Baglivo profile image

The author holds a degree in Zoology and Physiology from Rutgers University.

Female Ruby Throated Hummingbird and Black and Blue Salvia Flower

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Did you ever hear the one about the two Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds who fly into a garden and, looking around, don’t see any Black and Blue Sage and immediately fly off. As they wing away, one bird turns to the other and says "We have to find a better place for happy hour.”

Several years ago, I visited my local nursery here in Maryland on the hunt for a plant which I heard was great for attracting local hummingbirds. When I asked where I could find a Black and Blue Sage, a staffer yelled over to me “You’ll get so many hummingbirds with that one.” I now see how correct she was every time I look out my kitchen window in the morning and watch the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds feed on the “Black and Blues” I have lined up in pots down below the window. In fact, the birds come back all day for more of the nectar. No artificial feeders are necessary to attract Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds when you have a good supply of this plant to watch from your favorite window.

The Main Attraction

Black and Blue Sage (Salvia guaranitica), a native of South America is also known as Anise Scented Sage and Hummingbird Sage. Here in Zone 7 of the Mid-Atlantic the bushy ornamental grows to a height of 2 to 5 feet with a spread of equal size. The leaves are mint green and are about 2 inches long and 2 inches wide. The plants require full sun or part shade and grow quickly once the days reach spring warmth. I’ve found that flower production is best in full sun. They withstand drought well, but during dry times flower production slows. Soil should be light, fertile and well drained. Insects and disease are not a problem. Although described as only deer resistant, I have herds of deer visit my property all day and they have never grazed on the “Black and Blues.” This isn’t true for my many rabbit friends. Taller pots or deterrent around plants in the garden are necessary.

Classified as a herbaceous perennial, the plants are hardy from zones 8 to10 but must be either grown as potted specimens or dug up and transplanted to pots for winter in colder zones. The good news is that they are easily propagated by division from the pots in spring. Seeds are also available from larger suppliers.

The true stars of the Black and Blue are its amazing deep dark blue flowers that Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds simply can’t resist. Flowering from early summer to frost, this sage sports long 8 to 10 inch stems of amazingly cobalt blue flowers with black calyces, each approximately 5 inches long.

The Flowers of the Black and Blue Sage

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The Lush Foliage of the "Black and Blue"

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The Beautiful Suitors

Of the 350 species of hummingbirds found globally, the Ruby-Throated (Archilochus colubris) has the widest distribution of any hummingbird species, ranging from southern and central Canada in summer to as far south as northern Panama in winter. Here in central Maryland, I’ve only seen the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird in my backyard, which is not surprising since it is the only hummingbird that breeds east of the Mississippi. Other variant species of hummingbirds can occasionally be seen in the Mid-Atlantic including Rufous Hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus), Allen's Hummingbirds, (Selasphorus sasin) and Broad-Tailed Hummingbirds (Selasphorus platycercus). But it’s the Ruby-Throats who rule the hummingbird world of Maryland and surrounding states each summer.

Ruby-Throats are dimorphic with the two sexes appearing different in feather color. The male has a ruby-red throat and white collar; its back is deep emerald green and the tail is forked. The female has a less-vibrant green back and a rounded tail with feathers that are banded white, black and grey-green.

The two sexes also differ in timing their arrival in the Mid-Atlantic in the spring. The males arrive in May about two weeks ahead of the females in order stake out their feeding sites. The males are very territorial and it is not unusual to watch one male chase another away from prime nectar plants, like Black and Blue Sage. The males remain in Maryland until September and females and juveniles follow several weeks later on the trip to their winter grounds in Southern Mexico and Central America.

Timing is Everything

Black and Blue Sage begin flowering soon after warmth returns to Maryland. If planted in pots over the winter, they can be put out early and grow quickly, ready for the return of the Ruby Throats in May. New plants transplanted to the garden take slightly longer to flower because they should never be planted until all danger of frost has passed, usually mid-May in central Maryland where I live. That’s why I prefer to grow them in large pots so that I can control when to place them out and have them ready for the Ruby-Throats as soon as they return from southern climes. The potted plants are the way to go with this sage if you want to naturally attract these hummingbirds without artificial feeders as soon as possible in the spring and summer.

I recommend large pots because the plants grow quickly during the summer and will overwhelm any pot smaller than 15 inches in diameter and less than 12 inches in depth (the taller the better to deter rabbits from munching on the stalks). In the fall, before the first frost, long after the hummingbirds have winged off for the season, the potted sages can be cut back severely and put in a warm place to get them ready for the next growing season. If you dig them up to pot for the winter, they tend to look rather scrawny when they first emerge in the warm sun, but no worries, they will look great in a couple of weeks. They’ll soon be ready for the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds.

An Irresistible Sight for a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

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Female Ruby Throated Hummingbird

Back for More of That Sweet "Black and Blue" Nectar
Back for More of That Sweet "Black and Blue" Nectar | Source

A Love Affair: Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds and Black and Blue Sage

I like simple things in the garden and the Black and Blue Sage fits the bill. It’s easy to care for, unbelievably attractive with its vibrant green foliage and those striking blue and black flowers, doesn’t require cooking up batches of artificial nectar and, best of all, naturally attracts one of the most beautiful birds in the world, the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. I can’t think of a better way to see so much wonder just outside my kitchen window.

Peaceful Coexistence!

The hummingbirds never bother with the dozens of Bumble Bees that the Black and Blue Sage also attracts.
The hummingbirds never bother with the dozens of Bumble Bees that the Black and Blue Sage also attracts. | Source

References:

AvianWeb, The Beauty of Birds.com, “Hummingbirds Found in Maryland, USA,” Accessed August 28, 2015. http://beautyofbirds.com/hummingbirdsmaryland.html .

Maryland Department of Natural Resources, “Creating a Wild Backyard – Hummingbirds, Butterflies & Bees,” Accessed August 27, 2015. http://dnr2.maryland.gov/wildlife/Pages/habitat/wahumbutbee.aspx.

Operation Ruby Throat, RubyThroat.org. “Hummingbird Checklist by State
(U.S.),” Accessed August 27, 2015. http://www.rubythroat.org/checklistsusstatesmain.html.

Wikipedia, “Salvia guaranitica,” Accessed August 28, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salvia_guaranitica.

© 2015 M G Del Baglivo

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