Hummingbird Cake

Hummingbird cake sounds like a sweet and delicious dessert, and indeed it is, but is this treat really related to hummingbirds? Surprisingly, this cake does have connections to some of the world’s most spectacular hummingbirds.

The Origins of Hummingbird Cake

With many recipes, the exact origins of a specific taste or cooking method may be lost as the recipe is handed down through generations, adapted to different tastes and cooking conditions, adjusted for different ingredients, or modified for special dietary concerns. The same is true for hummingbird cake, but one spot of its history is well known – it originated from Jamaica. In 1968, the Jamaica Tourist Board distributed press kits to different agencies in the United States in order to encourage greater travel and tourism, and several recipes – including hummingbird cake – were part of those press kits. After that initial distribution, this richly sweet tropical cake began to appear in county fairs, church picnics, community cookbooks, newspaper clippings, and even cooking magazines, including Southern Living, where it was first printed in 1978 and today remain’s one of the magazine’s top cake recipes.

But What About the Hummingbirds?

Because hummingbird cake originates from Jamaica, it is often associated with two of the country’s most spectacular hummingbirds – the red-billed streamertail (Trochilus polytmus) and the black-billed streamertail (Trochilus scitulus). Both of these birds are found nowhere else in the world but Jamaica, and the more widespread of the two – the red-billed streamertail – is the country’s national bird and is found throughout the country except for the extreme northeastern portion of the island. In that area, from Port Antonio to Boston Bay and the surrounding region, the black-billed streamertail is seen.

While both of these hummingbirds have a sweet tooth and sip nectar from a wide range of feeders and flowers, they don’t actually eat hummingbird cake. The cake is often called “Doctor Bird Cake” in their honor, however, and to remember the cake’s connection to Jamaica.

Other fun connections this cake has to hummingbirds include the idea that it makes guests “hum with delight” because of its delicious taste, or the image that people will hover around the cake to be sure and get a slice, just as hummingbirds will hover around their favorite flowers to sip the nectar.

What Makes Hummingbird Cake Special

Hummingbird cake’s distinction comes from its ultra-moist texture, which is largely due to the batter being made entirely with oil rather than butter. The cake also has a much greater fruit component and less flour than many other cakes, giving it even more moistness and flavoring. Bananas and pineapple are always part of the recipe, as well as spices such as cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and cloves, though individual recipes may adjust the proportions of the spices or eliminate some of them altogether. Nuts are always part of hummingbird cake, usually toasted pecans, which are not only mixed into the batter but are also used as decoration. The cake is iced with a rich cream cheese frosting and may be either completely iced or only iced between layers, leaving the sides bare for a slightly lighter version.

Making Your Own Hummingbird Cake

Like any cake recipe, it is easy to adapt hummingbird cake for your own sweet tastes. Popular options include:

  • Substituting walnuts for the pecans as a taste preference
  • Eliminating the nuts altogether for allergy concerns
  • Using sweetened, shredded coconut in place of or in addition to nuts
  • Adding raisins to the batter in place of or in addition to nuts
  • Adding lemon or lime juice or zest to the frosting for a touch of citrus

It is best to bake this cake a day ahead in order to give the flavors time to blend together for richer taste. Because of the cream cheese frosting, hummingbird cake needs to be refrigerated, and it is best when served cold.

Many different cookbooks and recipe resources offer hummingbird cake variations, including:

This cake may also be known as Jamaican Cake, Nothing Left Cake, Doesn’t Last Long Cake, or Cake That Won’t Last. Whatever you call it, if it is sweet enough for hummingbirds, it’s sure to be a treat for any dessert table!

Melissa Mayntz

About Melissa Mayntz

Melissa Mayntz is a birder and a writer, naturally writing about birds. Her work has appeared with The Spruce, Farmers' Almanac, National Wildlife Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest and other publications. She is the author of Migration: Exploring the Remarkable Journeys of Birds (Quadrille Publishing, 2020), and is transforming her suburban backyard into prime bird habitat. Be Your Own Birder.