The Power of Red: Three Red Annuals Alluring to Hummingbirds

by DerdriuMarriner

Red signifies potential nectar sources for hummingbirds. "Empress of India' nasturtium, Scarlet sage, and 'Torch' Mexican sunflower are three red annuals with irresistible nectar.

The color red operates as a siren for nectar-loving hummingbirds.

Red flowers signify potential nectar sources irresistible to hummingbirds.

Three red annuals with irresistible appeal for nectar-loving hummingbirds comprise:
• 'Empress of India' nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus 'Empress of India'),
• Scarlet sage (Salvia splendens) 'Van-Houttei,' and
• 'Torch' Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia 'Torch').

the irresistible power of red for hummingbirds: nasturtium 'Empress of India'

nasturtium Tropaeolum majus 'Empress of India': from Allandale Farm
nasturtium Tropaeolum majus 'Empress of India': from Allandale Farm


Tropaeolum majus, known commonly as garden nasturtium, is an New World native annual, with altitudinous homelands in northwestern and west central South America's Andean countries from Bolivia north to Colombia.

With U.S.D.A. plant hardiness classification through Zone 9 (minimum winter temperatures: 20° to 30° F.; -7° to -1° C.) to Zone 11 (40° to 50° F.; 4° to 10° C.), Tropaeolum majus has found worldwide appeal as a cultivated plant.

Thriving in full or half sunlight, garden nasturtiums climb to a height of 10 feet (3 meters), with an equiproportionate spread of 10 feet (3 meters).

Striking leaves are colored dull green to glaucous (Greek: γλαυκός, glaukós, “blue-green, blue-grey”).

Also leaves are peltate, that is, nearly round in shape and attached to the stem via a petiole (Latin: petiolus, “little foot”), a stalk which terminates near the middle of the underside of the leaf.

Garden nasturtium blazes with brilliant flowers in shades of orange, red, and yellow.


Male calliope hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope):

Native to western United States and Canada, Calliope Hummingbirds are attracted to the glowing red of garden nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus), finding special favor in the vivid reds of 'Empress of India.'
Lafitte's Cove, Galveston, southeastern Texas
Lafitte's Cove, Galveston, southeastern Texas


Especially beguiling for nectar lovers is 'Empress of India' cultivar, with the stunning contrasts between its blue-green leaves and dazzling red flowers.

Among the parade of admirers of 'Empress of India' is calliope hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope). A New World native, with nesting grounds in western United States and Canada, calliopes traditionally winter in southwestern Mexico and its Central American neighbors, Belize and Guatemala.


Distribution map of Calliope Hummingbird

Yellow = Breeding range; Blue = Wintering range
Selasphorus calliope map
Selasphorus calliope map

Scarlet-flowered sage 'Van-Houttei' (Salvia splendens 'Van-Houttei'):

honored with Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit in 1996
Salvia vanhouttei (red-flowered form)
Salvia vanhouttei (red-flowered form)


Scarlet sage (Salvia splendens) is native to Brazil, where it thrives as a perennial (Latin: per, "through" + annus, "year"), especially at elevations of 6,600 to 9,800 feet (2,000 to 3,000 meters). 

Now familiar worldwide, scarlet sage may be found in all climates. Scarlet sage is considered to be a variable perennial because, depending on the minimum winter temperatures of plant hardiness zones, the resplendent plant in the mint family (Lamiaceae) is grown either as an annual or as a perennial. Generally, in the United States Salvia splendens 'Van-Houttei,' one of the species' star cultivars, is treated:

  • as an annual through U.S.D.A. Plant Hardiness Zone 7 (minimum winter temperatures: 0° to 10° F.; -18° to -12° C.) and
  • as a perennial for Zone 8 (minimum winter temperatures: 10° to 20° F.; -12° to -7° C.) through Zone 11 (40° to 50° F.; 4° to 10° C.).

Salvia splendens welcomes full sun and reaches a maximum height of 8 to 48 inches (20 - 120 centimeters), with a maximum spread of 8 to 32 inches (20 - 80 centimeters).

Oval green leaves with serrated margins surge with scarlet sage's multiplicity of branching stems.

Flowers unfurl as rich, warm shades of red for this species. Its cultivars expand Salvia splendens' color palette, with offerings such as:

  • deep red-purple in 'Empire Purple,'
  • vivid scarlet in 'Red Riches,' and
  • salmon with pink inner petals in 'Vista Salmon.'

The 'Sizzler' series of cultivars provides a cornucopia of colors, including burgundy, lavender, pink, red, salmon, and white, as well as bi-colorations.


Male ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) defending his territory atop tomato stake:

Ruby throats are drawn to the resplendent beauty of Salvia splendens, especially 'Van-Houttei' cultivar, for nectar enjoyment.
Valley Station, southwestern Jefferson County, north central Kentucky
Valley Station, southwestern Jefferson County, north central Kentucky


Salvia splendens 'Van-Houttei' entices hummingbirds, especially ruby throats (Archilochus colubris), with its spectacular wine-colored flowers.

New World native Archilochus colubris covers a large range of homelands, nesting in:

  • southern Canada from the east coast westward all the way deep into Manitoba and
  • mid-United States from the eastern fringes of the Great Plains eastward to the east coast.

Ruby throats migrate to live as snowbirds in southern Florida and from southern Mexico through every Central American country all the way into western Panama.


Approximate range/distribution map of Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Green = summer-only range; Blue = winter-only range; Orange = migratory range
Archilochus colubris map
Archilochus colubris map

flowering Mexican sunflower: Allied Arts Guild, Menlo Park, San Francisco Bay Area of northern California

site of Rancho de las Pulgas (“Ranch of the Fleas"), 18th century land grant to José Darío Argüello (1753–1828), founder of Los Angele
Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) 'Torch': flowering foliage
Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) 'Torch': flowering foliage


New World native annual Tithonia rotundifolia, known commonly as Mexican sunflower, has homelands in North America, from Mexico southward, encompassing every Central American country except Honduras.

Naturalization has extended Mexican sunflower's range to new homelands worldwide, with special thriving in west central to southern Africa, eastern Australia, eastern South America, and southeastern United States.

Tithonia rotundifolia is classed as hardy through U.S. 

A member of the daisy family (Asteraceae), Tithonia rotundifolia is valued for its lengthy blooming, from summer to the first frost.

Appreciative of full sun, Mexican sunflowers reach a maximum height of 3 to 6 feet (0.9 - 1.8 meters) and spread to about 2 feet (0.6 meters).

Velvety-hairy leaves, measuring 12 inches (30 centimeters) in length, festoon the many-branched stems of Tithonia rotundifolia.

Orange ray flowers encircle tufted yellow centers.



Mexican sunflower's 'Torch' cultivar regales hummingbirds, especially Anna's, with nectiforous orange-red flowers.

New World native Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) hugs western North America, from Canada south to Baja California, for nesting and wintering.


Distribution map of Anna's Hummingbird

Green = Breeding and wintering range; Blue = Wintering range
Calypte Anna map
Calypte Anna map

iridescent crimson-red crown and throat of male Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna):

Native to the west coast of North America, from Mexico through the United States and Canada, Anna's Hummingbirds delight in the nectar promises of the spectacular floral display of Mexican sunflowers, especially 'Torch' cultivar.
male Anna's Hummingbird
male Anna's Hummingbird

Conclusion: As with humans, red serves as stoplight for hummingbirds


Red is a color in nature in which hummingbirds place their faith for provision of nectar delights. As with humans, red serves as stoplights for hummers.

Among the plethora of red-flowered plants, three annuals stand out for their extraordinary floral displays and enticing nectars:

  • 'Empress of India' nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus 'Empress of India'),
  • Scarlet sage (Salvia splendens) 'Van-Houttei,' and
  • 'Torch' Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia 'Torch').

Backyard enthusiasts wishing to attract faithful visits from happy hummingbirds are rewarded by including these red annuals in their flower beds. Easy to grow and thriving in full sunlight, these carefree annuals proliferate in back yards as well as in container gardens.

There is no down time in appreciating these three red annuals, for their flowers prettify the landscape long before and after visits from gorgeous hummingbirds.


Mexican Sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia 'Torch') keeping company with Mexican Aster (Cosmos bipinnatus):

Mexican Asters are hardy annuals, with pink, purple, or white flowers, that also draw hummingbirds.
Allied Arts Guild, Bay Area, northern California
Allied Arts Guild, Bay Area, northern California



My special thanks to talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the internet.


Salvia splendens in the landscape:

Diligent deadheading encourages repeat blooming of Salvia splendens.
scarlet sage
scarlet sage

Sources Consulted


Flora: A Gardener’s Encyclopedia. Volume I: A-K. Portland OR: Timber Press, 2003.

Flora: A Gardener’s Encyclopedia. Volume II: L-Z. Portland OR: Timber Press, 2004.

Kirkpatrick, J. "Regional Planting Guide to Attract Hummingbirds." Garden Artisans > Articles. Web.

  • Available at:

McKinley, Michael. Ortho's All About Attracting Birds. Des Moines, IA: Meredith Books, 2001.

Newfield, Nancy L., and Barbara Nielsen. Hummingbird Gardens: Attracting Nature's Jewels to Your Backyard. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.

Ortho's All About Attracting Hummingbirds and Butterflies. Des Moines, IA: Meredith Books, 2001.

Roth, Sally. Attracting Butterflies & Hummingbirds to Your Backyard. Rodale Organic Gardening Book. Emmaus PA: Rodale, 2001.

"Taxon: Salvia splendens Sellow ex Schult." USDA, ARS, National Genetic Resources Program > Germplasm Resources Information Network - (GRIN) [Online Database]. United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. Web.

  • Available at:

"Taxon: Tithonia rotundifolia (Mill.) S.F. Blake." USDA, ARS, National Genetic Resources Program > Germplasm Resources Information Network - (GRIN) [Online Database]. United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. Web.

  • Available at:

"Taxon: Tropaeolum majus L." USDA, ARS, National Genetic Resources Program > Germplasm Resources Information Network - (GRIN) [Online Database]. United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. Web.

  • Available at:

Winter, Norman. "Salvia Van Houttei Attracts Admirers." > Southern Gardening News Features. August 5, 2002. Mississippi State University. Web.

  • Available at:


In addition to nectaring hummingbirds, peppery-scented Tropaeolum majus benefits humans through visual appeal and culinary versatility:

Garden nasturtium's flowers and leaves are edible; also, their exquisite seeds substitute deliciously for capers (Capparis spinosa).
Nasturtium 'Empress of India'
Nasturtium 'Empress of India'
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

A companion piece to the popular "Advice from a Tree" t-shirt and book, Advice From A Hummingbird will delight any bird lover or self-help enthusiast.

Shirt Text: Sip the sweet moments / Let your true colors glow / Don't get your feathers ruffled over little things / Just wing it / Take yourself lightly / Keep your visits short and sweet!
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Solar hummingbird mobile wind chime
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Anna's Hummingbird in flight California Coast, Mexico: photo by Francois Gohier

10x14 Photo Puzzle with 252 pieces. Packed in black cardboard box 5 5/8 x 7 5/8 x 1 1/5. Puzzle image 5x7 affixed to box top.
Photo Jigsaw Puzzle - Ardea Wildlife Pets

Hummingbird with Flowers: black t-shirt

Hummingbird with Flowers
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Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 10/19/2021, DerdriuMarriner
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DerdriuMarriner on 06/25/2014

VioletteRose, That's lovely that Mexican sunflowers grew in your parents' garden.
Mexican sunflowers are quite stunning, so it's good to know that you can have as many flowers as you want because of their fast propagation and floral profusion.
Both scarlet sage and nasturtiums make spectacular contributions to gardens. Perhaps you'll see them some day for they are admired worldwide.

VioletteRose on 06/24/2014

Mexican sunflower plants used to grow by its own in my parents garden and they propagate very fast and produce lots of lovely, colourful flowers. I love those flowers. The other two red flowers too look very pretty but I have no experience growing them. These bright coloured flowers definitely look great in any garden, and it is a bonus that they can attract hummingbirds!

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