Monarda and Cardinal flowers: Native reds Hummingbirds can’t resist

Hummingbird working Bee Balm.

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird works the bright red Bee Balm.

Add these two fine reds to your garden and enjoy the pollinator party

Hummingbirds love reds and the combination of Monarda and Cardinal flowers prove just too irrisistable for them.

You could almost say these native red flowers combine the natural sweet flavours that keep our hummingbirds, bees and butterflies drunk with excitement over the natural abundance of their favourite food. But, that might be pushing the whole red wine thing a little too far.

In our garden, the Monarda begins to bloom in early July and the hummingbirds quickly add them to their daily feeding rounds. I notice, however, that the Cardinal flowers – growing just a few feet away – are not far behind the Monarda. Within weeks the area beside our patio will be a haven for hummingbirds looking to fill up on the sweet natural nectar that these two native reds provide.

If you are looking for more information on growing native flowers, you might be interested in going to my comprehensive article: Why we should use native plants in our gardens.

Our feeders, too, are nearby but given the choice, Hummers will prefer to visit the more natural nectar sources. It’s a good idea to keep this in mind when you are trying to attract hummingbirds and other garden pollinators. Provide their natural food and chances are they’ll visit more often and stay longer.

If using native plants to feed birds and pollinators in your garden interests you, you might want to check out this post on feeding birds on a budget.

Create a natural stage for Garden photography

In addition, the more natural stage for the hummingbirds and butterflies will turn you into a master when in comes to garden photography. There’s nothing like the male Ruby-throated Hummingbird, with its red throat, working the bright red Monarda and scarlet Cardinal flowers. Set up your camera and telephoto lens nearby, grab a glass of your own favourite “red” and just wait for the hummingbirds to arrive. It shouldn’t take long before you are rewarded with some great photographs.

How to grow Bee Balm (Monarda)

Monarda (Monarda didyma) often referred to as Bee Balm is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae). It joins Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), that features light lavender to pinkish-white flowers, in the Lamiaceae family that counts 16 species native to North America.

(Go here for my full story on Wild Bergamot )

Monarda can really put on a show. Blooming for up to 6 weeks through mid summer to early fall on tall (up to 4 feet), sturdy square and hollow stems, these attractive perennials have deep roots with shallow rhizomes that account for its spreading habit. It can form large drifts in your garden creating a magnet for hummingbirds and other pollinators including those cool Clearwing hummingbird moths, native bees including bumblebees and, of course, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

Like it’s sister, Wild Bergamot, the Monarda flower is actually a cluster of 20 or more flowers (fistulosa) arranged in a round head. The fistulosa (tubular or pipe shapes) make them ideal for long-tongued insects, bees, moths and butterflies to feed on. The plants’ nectar is so sought after by insects that you may notice holes carved out of the flower stems where “tongue-challenged” insects have bore through to get at the nectar.

The plants easily take to a garden and are at home growing along other garden plants, in a sunny meadow-style planting or as specimens in sun, part-shade. Bee balm actually prefers average soil (too rich and you are liable to have tall, lanky plants that don’t hold up well on their own.) Powdery mildew can be a problem if the plants are grown in a wet, humid area without good airflow.

Keep the plants watered but not wet and you’ll be blessed with a great show all summer.

• If you are considering creating a meadow in your front or backyard, be sure to check out The Making of a Meadow post for a landscape designer’s take on making a meadow in her own front yard.

How to grow Cardinal flowers

Cardinal flowers prefer a more wet environment than Monarda so growing them side-by-side will be difficult. Ours grow several feet apart and through hand watering I am able to keep the Cardinal flowers’ feet in more moist soil. Our Cardinal flowers have found a home on the outside edge of a yellow magnolia so also get get less sun than the Monarda plants.

Take a moment to check out my full feature on growing the native Cardinal flower.

Cardinal flowers are considered short-lived perennial but by spreading the seed in your garden, you can enjoy the flowers for years to come. Try placing the spent flower heads atop the soil in a moist part of the garden and you should be blessed with more and more flowers each year. They grow on long spires that can reach up to 4 feet. The flowers bloom as they make their way up the stalk.

In conclusion: Two reds can make a right

Planning your patio should involve more than where the best seating options are, unless, of course, you’re planning the seating options around the best wildlife viewing spots. By making an effort to plant attractive native plants such as Cardinal flower and Bee balm that attract hummingbirds, butterflies and birds, your patio or deck transforms from just a place to sit and entertain, into a place to be entertained.

As summer heats up, I can’t imagine a better time than being outdoors on the patio or deck with my favourite red and a couple of feathered friends dropping by on regular visits.

Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.

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