Plant Red Birds in a Tree for flocks of brilliant scarlet flowers

January 4, 2017

One of the thrills of the winter garden is the arrival of the northern cardinal songbirds at the feeders. Cardinals’ bright red contrasts with the bleak colors of winter.

The bright red cardinal mates for life, and couples stay together year-round. The male cardinal takes an active role feeding and caring for the mother while she incubates the eggs, and even after the young hatch.

They seem quite angelic, with mated pairs singing together before nesting. This showy bird is commonly called the redbird. 

There are red birds that will stay in your garden year-round, the Red Birds in a Tree, a rare wildflower native to the southern mountains of New Mexico and Arizona. 

The spires of small cherry- red, white-lipped flowers really do look like a flock of red birds perched on a tree. Each flower is about half inch to an inch long on top of 36-inch-high flower spikes. 

This drought-tolerant plant used to go by the rather odd name of Mimbres figwort.

The shrubs are hardy in USDA zones 5-10. Each plant spreads to about 18 inches wide. The serrated leaves are an attractive deep green. 

Red Birds in a Tree (Scrophularia macrantha) is a bit of sprawler and will hang on nearby plants for support. Salvia mixes well with them and gives them something to hang onto.

Once established, Red Birds in a Tree does not need much care, and uses very little water. It even will rebloom without deadheading. 

When planting, dig a hole twice as big as the rootball. Because it comes from the mountain slopes of southwestern United States, it adapts well anywhere you have full sun to part shade.

They do well in the back of a border, where they thrive in poor, dry soil and hot sun. 

If you have too much energy or just want to go the extra mile, you can cut back the stems to about six inches high in the spring just as new growth is emerging.

Never prune plants after mid-September because it encourages tender new growth that will damage easily during the winter. To keep the roots cool and hold in moisture, mulch with coarse mulch or loose gravel. Even though it isn't necessary, some gardeners cut off the dead blooms. 

These hardy shrubs are resistant to rabbits and deer. Because they bloom from early summer to the middle of fall, they really prove their mettle by attracting flocks of nectar-drinking hummingbirds. 

Because they can be hard to find, you may want to order Red Birds in a Tree plants (Scrophularia macrantha) now for spring planting.

They are available from specialty nurseries such as Farmer Seed ( or 507-334-1623. 

Plant Red Birds in a Tree and soon you will have flocks of brilliant scarlet cardinal flowers.

The hummingbirds and red flowers bring an inner peace. As they say, cardinals appear when angels are near.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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