When I saw a hummingbird in my Massachusetts garden shortly before Thanksgiving, I did what many 21st Century gardeners would do: I posted a photo on Facebook.
I’ve always believed that migrating birds had their act together. It was my assumption that they all got the message to leave from air temperatures or decreasing hours of daylight. As a group they just knew when it was time to gather and fly south.
After all, flocks of hundreds of grackles would pass through my yard every October while many honking V-lines of geese fly overhead. From the largest goose to the smallest hummingbird, I thought that they got the signal, grouped together, and left northern regions en masse.
Evidently, that’s not so.
In mid-November a tiny bird appeared to tell me otherwise. Since it was a mild fall, the pineapple sage in my garden was not only still alive, it was in full, glorious bloom. I’d planted this Salvia, named ‘Golden Delicious,’ because the leaves are a vibrant gold all summer. The foliage smells like pineapple, is edible, and the plant bursts into vibrant, red flowers in October. It also tolerates light frost, so while everything else is dying ‘Golden Delicious’ is saying, “Ta-da!”
This past fall my plant was not only thriving but on November 15th I spotted a tiny hummingbird working the flowers. I’d assumed that all the hummingbirds had long ago flown through on their way to Florida, Costa Rica or wherever they go for the winter. Yet here was one lone bird, flying busily from one Saliva flower to another just nine days before Thanksgiving. Naturally, I took a slightly blurry photo with my phone and put it on Facebook.
This post led to a wonderful connection with a local birdwatcher. He camped out near my Salvia and identified my late-season hummer as a young, female ruby throat, Archilochus colubris. He told me that she was one of two hummingbirds seen in this region, and they were building up enough strength to be able to keep flying south. Suddenly, my ‘Golden Delicious’ took on new importance. These late-flowering herbs weren’t just for my enjoyment…they were a matter of survival for a small, underweight bird.
My new BFF, the birder, brought over feeders so should a frost kill my Salvia there would still be a sugar-rich energy source for this hummingbird. He told me how to make more sugar syrup, and the importance of putting the feeders in the refrigerator at night so that they’d stay fresh but wouldn’t crack from freezing. I was encouraged to hang them daily through Christmas or as long as she remained in my gardens.
Sure enough, the pineapple sage died in the cold nights of early December, but I kept those feeders filled even after she was no longer spotted in my gardens. As I wished her Godspeed, I also kept hanging the vessels of fresh sugar water in case other inexperienced migrators were passing through. This little hummer had made me aware that not every creature moves with the crowd or keeps to the throng’s schedule.
Now, I know that I can’t save every bird. Nature has her rhythms and reasons, and these include the ongoing tunes of life and death. But there is satisfaction in adding a life-affirming note to this ongoing song. By providing a small measure of energy and another chance for survival for one of the tiniest of creatures, I almost felt like I was given wings.
You can order Salvia elegans ‘Golden Delicious’ from Avant Gardens, or ask for it at your local garden center this spring.