What’s it like to be a hummer in a Jewelweed patch? Buzzing-twittering through a jungle of bright orange nectar horns big as your head… whizzing in pursuit of companions… hanging in space as your tongue curls around sweetness….
Most birds move through the world with an ease we can only envy – but some, like hummingbirds and swallows, seem truly at home in the air. I’m just the earthbound observer – sweating, mosquito bitten, trying to hand-hold a little camera still in low light – it’s nearly impossible to track this tiny creature’s darting movements. The hummers don’t appreciate my presence, and twitter with annoyance from the back of the flower patch. My pics are not like the ones you’ll find on google images, close-ups of hummers isolated in space. Rather, these are hummers at home in their world – you’ll have to search for the bird, as I did.
As any Ruby-throat knows, a Jewelweed patch is the place to be. The sheer masses of blooms ensure a good meal of nectar and small insects. In fact, it appears that the plant and the bird have co-evolved, to the point that hummingbirds are the best pollinators of Spotted Jewelweed, Impatiens capensis. Quoting from this great article: https://nationalzoo.si.edu/migratory-birds/news/flower-specialist
“A study found that even though bumblebees also visit jewelweed, hummingbirds do a far better job at pollinating it. This is because when a hummingbird visits the flower, it causes the flower to wobble and this wobbling rubs lots of pollen on the bird’s face. When the bee visits jewelweed, its movements are more delicate. The flower stays still and the bee leaves with less pollen to take to the next flower.”
I was baffled when I saw the white blob on this young hummer’s face, but after reading the above, realized it is indeed Jewelweed pollen.
Obviously, the continued presence of healthy Jewelweed patches is very important in our forest. I remember, back before the deer arrived, how abundant the jewelweed was – and the hummers as well. Because tender jewelweed is a very preferred deer browse, patches of this plant have taken a real hit in recent years. Browsing doesn’t kill the plant, but does reduce or eliminate production of showy flowers. The plant then reproduces with the help of tiny self-pollinating “cleistogamous” flowers, but this cuts pollinators out of the loop.
The jewelweed patch in these pics is one where I used natural “deer exclusion” barriers. This consists of – you guessed it – piling brush, like large cut honeysuckle limbs, throughout an area as discouragement to entry. It has to be very high and very dense to do it’s job, but the results are worth it.
Spotted jewelweed is surprisingly under-utilized in native plant gardens, considering its value to hummingbirds. As an annual, it’s very easy to grow in moist soil and can take a fair amount of shade. Right now is the time to get seed, since the fat green pods are ready to go off – “touch me” says the plant.
By September Jewelweed usually dies back from late season dryness, but this year’s wet summer has been very good for the flowers. It’s a fine excuse to get out on the trail for some hummingbird watching!