In Buddhism, intention counts for a lot. We make mistakes, clean up after ourselves as best we can, and then look at our original intention. Were we trying to be helpful? To get even? Gain attention? The lessons of one mistake can be endless. When I try to walk through a public park just about anywhere in the Northwest, I wonder about that Englishman who thought importing starlings to the United States would give us a more Shakespearian atmosphere. Noble intention. Huge mistake. He probably needs — not that I want to exaggerate too much here — hundreds of lifetimes to straighten out the starling mess he started.
Perhaps you've noticed. It feels like I can't walk Bodhi the dog anywhere without being fire bombed. There's a park in Kirkland, across the street from Juanita Beach, where I've given up trying to cut across the park for coffee because those starlings are Seattle's meanest. They have been brave enough to brush against my back, hit the back of my head, and stop Bodhi in his tracks with their circling. Maybe all the constant traffic around them has driven them completely insane. Or maybe they are just mean. Either way, I miss the coffee.
Happily, there is an antidote.
Hummingbirds will take on starlings in a gnat's minute.
Hummingbirds are already a case study in adorable. In the spring, the females keep themselves busy weaving their ping pong ball-sized nests together with spider silk and saliva, covering the tiny little mass with camouflage in the form of lichen and moss. Then it is off to find a mate who always dances for her, making sure to keep his best side facing the sun. (If you think I'm kidding, just watch.) Their ensuing lovemaking is the hummingbird equivalent of Flight of the Conchords' song, "Business Time." Five seconds is long. From there on out, life is a constant search for nectar.
The benefits of having these happy pills in a garden or park only starts with their ability to chase off starlings and other birds of prey. They also love aphids and gnats and if, like me, you live in the land of spider webs, occasional spiders as well. On the chance that park staff are reading this blog or, perhaps a garden guerilla or two, here are three not-so-obvious, inexpensive plants that can lure hummingbirds into starling territory.
Yup. As northwest summers get drier, yucca seems to be surviving in greater numbers. You know that empty spot at the end of the driveway? Or the median in front of your apartment building? Think yucca. Hummingbirds love the flowers. As a bonus, yucca is chock full of medicinal help. Its soapy leaves can be used as poultices for sprains and all kinds of inflammation. Yucca can fight dandruff and, some say, hair loss. The medical world is looking at yucca extract as a potential inhibitor of melanoma cells, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Local nursery staff will know which ones will work best in a particular neighborhood.
2. Blue Anise Sage.
If you've planted salvia to get the attention of hummingbirds and they've flown right past it, take heart. It turns out that hummingbirds prefer native salvias like Blue Anise Sage. This sage has to be one of the most beautiful plants on the planet. These perennials, some growing four feet high, have deep blue flowers that are siren calls to hummingbirds. Cobalt blue. If you can picture old Milk of Magnesia bottles, that blue. Part of the reason hummingbirds like the flowers is that they are as long as two inches and can stay open for months, offering up nectar to hummingbird travelers.
Blue Anise Sage likes sun and can survive winter if there is good drainage. If your soil is soggy, think of the plant as an annual because that's what it'll be. The sage is stunning when it is planted next to Black-Eyed Susans or any of the other deep gold flowering plants. When it starts to look leggy, you can just cut it back and throw some fertilizer around it to give it a second wind.
3. Flowering Maple.
Flowering maple, also known as Chinese Bellflower or Chinese Lantern, isn't a maple. It's a shrub that flowers. The flowers come in all sorts of colors although I've most often seen them in red and yellow. The hummingbird draw is the flowers' huge, dark purple, anthers. I plant flowering maple in a pot that can be dragged out in the spring through fall and then keep me company inside the house during the potential frost months. Even without flowers, this plant is a pretty thing, with its maple-shaped leaves of many-colored green. If you want to plant one outside, give it lots of space, about two feet, and put it in partial shade. If you pinch off the tips in the spring, it'll branch better all summer. Given the right conditions, flowering maples can grow as high as ten feet, so you'll want to keep track of them between hummingbird sightings.
How will the birds find your plants? Not a problem. It is said that, in a given year not a square foot goes unchecked in the birds' relentless hunt for food. Given how much nectar they need to eat to keep going every day, I'm guessing this is true. They'll find you. And when they do, it will be goodbye starlings, hello coffee.