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22-30 June 2004
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Although it's true that long, thin hummingbird bills are nicely adapted to take nectar from long, tubular flowers, it's a misconception that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds feed only from blossoms that match their bill size and shape. The orange flowers of Trumpet Creeper (right) are indeed "hummingbird magnets," but hummers at Hilton Pond Center are curious beasts; they flit around sticking their bills--and tongues--into all sorts of objects to learn if something sweet is hidden within. We've seen young ruby-throats persistently probe everything from bright satin ribbons to roadside stop signs, but they eventually move on to legitimate food sources if they realize no nutrients are to be had. On the other hand, when those fledgling hummers sample Rose of Sharon, they immediately realize its non-tubular four-inch cup-shaped flower may have nearly as much tasty nectar as Trumpet Creeper.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

If you're a native plant purist, you may scoff at folks who use Rose of Sharon to attract hummingbirds, but it's actually a nice asset to a backyard habitat. The 10-foot-tall shrub is not actually a rose but is in the Mallow Family (Malvaceae) and is sometimes called "Shrub Althea." Its scientific name--Hibiscus syriacus--implies it comes from the Middle East, but its origins are India and East Asia. In fact, Rose of Sharon is the national flower of Korea. Biblical scholars originally supposed this large, showy blossom was mentioned in the Song of Solomon, but biogeographers now think Solomon's plant was a Rockrose that grows commonly in the Mideast. Such was also the conclusion drawn by Carolus Linnaeus, who originally classified H. syriacus in the 18th century based on a herbarium specimen from Syria (left)--to which the species apparently had been imported long ago. These days, Rose of Sharon is grown nearly worldwide as an ornamental, but in the U.S. it seems to do best east of the Great Plains. Since it can escape from cultivation, Rose of Sharon may become a "weed"--i.e., grow where it's not wanted; in most cases it is easily controlled and seldom becomes truly invasive. Although we didn't plant Rose of Sharon at Hilton Pond Center, several specimens persist with our blessings after more than two decades--even thriving in the middle of the Trumpet Creeper patch outside the old farmhouse window. This helps out the viney Trumpet Creeper, which uses shrubby Rose of Sharon for support, and both these nectar-rich plants help out our hummingbirds.

Rose of Sharon comes in many colors--especially white, lilac, and pink; it occurs as a single flower (all shown here), or as a hybridized double. Blooms first occur in late spring and continue through early fall, making Rose of Sharon one of a few summer-blooming hummingbird shrubs. Individual blossoms open in early morning, close at night, and usually last less than three days. Regardless of the flower's color, there is almost always an intensely maroon central spot formed by a concentration of pigment at the bases of five large petals. This target zone (below)--which is also where nectar pools--attracts the attention of hungry hummingbirds but likely originated as a "bee guide" for insect pollinators.

The reproductive part of the flower is a long finger-like stalk typical of hibiscus and other mallows (top photo); it consists of many pollen-bearing stamens and a large pistil head at the tip. Once fertilized, each flower makes a large woody seed pod or capsule that is almost acorn-shaped (open pod, below right).

The pod has five cells, each containing three or more seeds that are brownish-red quarter-inch disks. Pods persist through the winter (and sometimes longer), dispersing all their seeds by the spring season. Pruning a Rose of Sharon in autumn before seed capsules open is an effective way to minimize any invasive qualities the shrub may have. On the other hand, ripened seeds are very easy to collect by shaking the pods into a cloth bag--just in case you want to propagate more H. syriacus.

The almost-triangular serrated leaf of Rose of Sharon is semi-glossy, dark green, and about 3" long; the foliage is also deciduous, which causes much consternation among forgetful gardeners. After the leaves drop in autumn, Rose of Sharon goes into a very long resting period and is one of the last shrubs to green up in spring. We often get inquiries from folks who think their prized Rose of Sharon collection froze to death during the winter, when all the gardeners needed was a little more patience and a reminder that these shrubs are invariably "late-leafers."

Obviously, it's impossible to eliminate every exotic plant from the Carolina Piedmont, and we do all we can to encourage native species at Hilton Pond Center. Nonetheless, since Rose of Sharon shrubs are both eye-pleasers and hummingbird-attractors, we're inclined to give our already established colony the benefit of the doubt and not whack it back when we're eradicating the far more pernicious Russian Olive, Chinese Privet, and Japanese Honeysuckle.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center
Linnaeus herbarium sheet photo courtesy Swedish Museum of Natural History

All contributions are tax-deductible

NOTE: We are not horticulturists, so we regret we can't answer specific questions about how to plant, propagate, and/or prune hummingbird flowers such as Rose of Sharon, but your local agriculture extension office or Master Gardener group may be able to help. We're also unable to provide names of sources from which you can order plants.

The Piedmont Naturalist, Volume 1 (1986)--long out-of-print--has been re-published by author Bill Hilton Jr. as an e-Book downloadable to read on your iPad, iPhone, Nook, Kindle, or desktop computer. Click on the image at left for information about ordering. All proceeds benefit education, research, and conservation work of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.
"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written and photographed by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History

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Please report your
sightings of
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds


22-30 June 2004

Yellow-throated Vireo
Yellow- throat & eye ring and white wings bars are diagnostic

Ruby-throated Hummingbird--2
Carolina Chickadee--2
Louisiana Waterthrush--1
Yellow-throated Vireo--1
Northern Cardinal--3
Tufted Titmouse--3
Carolina Wren--1
Downy Woodpecker--1
House Finch--6

* = New species for 2004

9 species
20 individuals

47 species
1,416 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
44,721 individuals

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)

Northern Cardinal (2)
07/29/02--3rd year male (BALD)
11/03/03--after hatch year male

Tufted Titmouse (1)
04/30/02--after 3rd year male

--On the morning of 22 June we noticed two brown ducks swimming across Hilton Pond. A quick look through binoculars showed that both were Wood Ducks--our only local year-round waterfowl. The lead bird was a hen with a diagnostic white eye ring, but the second bird was less distinct--a male woodie in eclipse plumage. During summers, males in many duck species lose their bright breeding colors and become as "drab" as females--a useful strategy because they also undergo synchronous loss of their primary and secondary wing feathers and are unable to fly. Drakes in eclipse plumage often hide until they regain their flight feathers; this is the first time we've seen a male Wood Duck like this in our 23 years observing Hilton Pond, and it'ss interesting he was still tending the female despite his less than dapper appearance.

--Two of three new species banded for the year are among our least common birds since 1982 at Hilton Pond Center. Captured this week were our 36th Louisiana Waterthrush and our 38th Yellow-throated Vireo (above left). Both species breed locally--the vireo was a female with a pronounced brood patch--but are not abundant and seldom hit our nets.

--28 June marked the 22nd anniversary of the first bird banded at Hilton Pond Center--a female Common Grackle. For graphics showing totals of birds banded locally through this week, see Table 1, Chart 1 & Chart 2.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka The Piedmont Naturalist, it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this Web site--including articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this Web site, contact the Webmaster.

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