Hummingbird magnet...Red Birds in a Tree celebrates a birthday!

September 4, 2014 Panayoti Kelaidis , Senior Curator & Director of Outreach

redbird Red birds in a tree

Native plants usually summon up images of wispy, finely textured grasses or suchlike--hardly a glamorous novelty like red birds in a tree (Scrophularia macrantha). This gorgeous native perennial is prospering in gardens across America and beyond, but is restricted in nature to just a few montane sky islands in southern New Mexico.

It was on Cooke's Peak, exactly twenty years ago this month that Allan R. Taylor and I had obtained the permission of landowners to drive up Cooke's Peak in Luna County to visit the famous grove of Arizona Cypress that grows there (the northernmost, and most cold hardy of its kind as it turns out). I noticed a penstemon-like plant that didn't look quite right in a few spots among the cypresses and collected a single capsule that was beginning to ripen. All Scrophularia macrantha in cultivation across the world are probably descended from the seeds in that capsule plucked twenty years ago (a testament if we needed any of the power of horticulture to propagate rare plants).

redbird2 Redbirds on a median strip!

Here you can see an especially showy specimen of this species growing on a median strip in Lakewood, where Greg Foreman transformed the idea of what could or couldn't be grown in public places. I nearly had an accident when I saw this enormous clump--almost six feet tall and even more across! In nature, most seemed to be only a few feet tall, as they are in many gardens. They start to bloom in late spring, and many still have flowers in autumn. Friends have commented that this is the ultimate hummingbird magnet.

Ever since this was first promoted by High Country Gardens (where David Salman gave it its wonderful moniker) and later picked as a Plant Select choice, hummingbirds have flocked to this gorgeous native in gardens across the West. In fact, I suspect that this and the many other red flowered agastaches, salvias and penstemons promulgated by Plant Select may be responsible for the dramatic increase of hummingbirds in residence in our lowland cities over the past two decades. When I was a kid, you never saw hummers in town except in spring and fall--Plant Select has provided a banquet that keeps many of them in town--and provides a haven for them in dry years when nectar in the high country is hard to come by.

There are hundreds of Scrophularias in Eurasia as well as North America--most of them brown or green in color. This is unquestionably the showiest. Fortunately, it still resides in its own family (Scrophulariaceae) whereas penstemons, paintbrushes, veronicas and many more former "Scrophs" have been put in the Plantain family. I don't believe the hummingbirds care, however!


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