Hummingbird Plants of the Southwest by Marcy Scott

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Click picture to preview book

Book review by Cindy Burrascano, Chair Book Sales

Last year I received a beautiful book Hummingbird Plants of the Southwest by Marcy Scott from the publisher for review. The book contains 5 chapters: “Hummingbirds and Their Flowers - A Short Primer,” “Hummingbirds of the Southwest, Creating a Hummingbird Habitat,” “Gardening with Native Plants - Southwestern Style,” and “Hummingbird Plants of the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico.” The book is informative and photographs are gorgeous for both the hummingbirds and plant species but my glancing through the plant species made me hesitant to carry the book for CNPSSD. The author is trying to describe plant species over a large territory from California to Texas and Northern Mexico to lower Utah and Colorado. My concern is that people look at the lovely photographs and will choose a species that does not occur in San Diego or Imperial County based on the pretty picture of the plant. The book displays 21 species of penstemon but doesn’t include Penstemon heterophylla (foothill penstemon) or Penstemon spectabilis (showy penstemon), the common species for most of our membership and people likely to buy the book from our CNPS chapter. Salvias in the book include 9 species but the most common ones for our area are lumped together in the text with no photographs. I understand that is due to the extent of the area the author is trying to cover but it makes one work a little harder to make sure they choose local species that support hummingbirds. I don’t like to encourage use of non-local species in gardening.

Back to species - I don’t know about your experience with Salvia clevelandii (Cleveland Sage) but when I had a yard in Chula Vista, the Salvia clevelandii  in my backyard and the Epilobium canum (California Fuchsia) in my front yard were regular draws for hummingbirds. Both bloomed for extensive times given a little supplemental water. Cleveland Sage is a beautiful plant but of highly limited distribution over the range of Southwestern hummingbirds and while it is mentioned, it doesn’t have its own photograph in the book. I put the California Fuchsia in my front parking strip, and once it started blooming I was suddenly seeing hummingbirds regularly in the front yard when I used to only see them in the back by the Salvias. I mostly put the California Fuschia there as they are hardy, require little water, and have lovely blooms for extended time if given a little water. I don’t believe I thought about hummingbirds when I planted but I was pleased to see the species is included in the book with a photograph. I enjoyed creating a water spray that the hummingbirds would dive through when I was watering the yard and they were visiting. The “Creating a Hummingbird Habitat” section of the book discusses water features that are attractive to hummingbirds for your garden.

Marcy Scott recently contacted the chapter about her book. She explained to me that she had originally not planned on including California. She lives in New Mexico along the Rio Grande and operates a nursery specializing in Southwestern native plants, plants for wildlife habitat and other resource efficient landscape plants. The migratory nature of the different hummingbird species made it critical to include the information extending to California. The author is trying to encourage gardeners to help overcome some of the loss of food sources for the birds that occurred with extensive development, especially in the coastal part of the state, through inclusion of nectar plants in their gardens. I had picked up two copies of the book prior to her contact and they sold the same night I put them out for sale at the chapter meeting.

Other pertinent information shared by the author when I mentioned my concerns about carrying a book with such broadly based information was that out of 135 plant species mentioned in the book, 41 (or about 30%) are native to one or both counties included in the chapter, including 14 out of 15 California/Baja California endemics. Ipomopsis tenuifolia is only found in San Diego and Imperial counties. The several penstemons, especially P. centranthifolius and P. labrosus; the Keckiellas; the Diplacus species; Salvia spathacea; the two Ribes; and Monardella macrantha -- all are of tremendous importance to resident and migrating hummingbirds, and the plants depend substantially upon them for pollination.

She didn't start out thinking that she needed to include California plants in the book, but as she delved more deeply into the migratory patterns of our western hummingbird species and the corresponding evolution of flowering plants adapting to those movements, it became apparent what a critical role those plants play in the big picture. Hummingbirds depend heavily upon the plants and they in turn rely significantly on the birds - - and with so many threats that both face these days, she wanted to share the information as widely as possible.

Chapter 2 includes six species of hummingbirds listed as regular in California (Black-chinned, Anna’s, Costa’s, Calliope, Rufous, and Allen’s), two species being occasionally reported (Broad-billed (sporadic over large areas) and Broad-tailed (nesting in the eastern part of the state in single leaf pinyon (Pinus monophyla), California Juniper (Juniperus californica), and Salix species), and very rare reports of Violet-crowned, Magnificent, and Blue-throated being seen. The migratory behavior of species is discussed for these species and the others not occurring in California but in the Southwest and Northern Mexico.

In the plant section, the author includes a photograph and information about the size of plants, the bloom period, water use, cold hardiness and USDA zone as well as a page of discussion about the species. I was thrilled to see her advice for planting Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora) in her description of the species. It was also interesting to see that the birds will use plants that are not red colored although the bulk of the species included are red blooming. I knew this from seeing them visit purple blooming penstemons in nature. I was never able to keep a Penstemon spectabilis alive in my garden but we planted one at Black Mountain Open Space Park last year and it bloomed and bloomed, and I saw it visited by hummingbirds. The book has at least eight different plant genera with species that are not red blooming so you don’t have to forgo hummingbirds in your yard if you don’t like red flowers.

After reading more of the book instead of just looking at the pretty pictures of species that don’t naturally occur in San Diego and Imperial County, I decided the chapter should carry the book for sale. My concerns remain about people bringing in species not native to this area because of their beauty, and the hybridization with related species that can occur with plants. Since we carry other gardening books that showcase species notnative to the area it didn’t seem right to leave this one out.Please don’t bring the “beautiful but not native to here” species into your garden when you see the beautiful photographs of the different species. Ms. Scott was correct to impress upon me the migratory nature of most of the hummingbird species and their need to travel through California and feed along the way. Ihadn’t thought about the co-evolution occurring between the species and will need to read the book more thoroughly to see what information it contains about that topic or in the extensive bibliography section. I had to wince when I read her statement about eucalyptus and tree tobacco supporting hummingbird species in Southern California due to their prevalence and the loss of their native nectar sources to development. Perhaps if we can get enough nectar species in our gardens, the hummingbirds won’t need the weedy invasives.