Why do they call it a hummingbird cake?

Hummingbird cake is a beloved Southern dessert with banana, pineapple, pecans, and spices. But where did it get its unusual name? The origins of this cake’s moniker are a sweet bit of culinary history.

What is hummingbird cake?

Hummingbird cake is a layered spice cake with banana, pineapple, nuts, and a rich cream cheese frosting. It’s a dense, moist cake that’s almost like a cross between banana bread and carrot cake. The tropical fruit flavors combined with warm baking spices like cinnamon give it a uniquely delicious taste.

Here’s a quick rundown of what goes into a classic hummingbird cake recipe:

  • Sifted dry ingredients like flour, sugar, baking soda, and spices
  • Mashed bananas and crushed pineapple
  • Chopped nuts, usually pecans or walnuts
  • Vegetable oil, eggs, vanilla, and optional extras like shredded coconut or chopped apple
  • Cream cheese frosting flavored with vanilla

The cake batter comes together quickly in one bowl, then is divided between two or three round cake pans and baked. Once cooled, the layers are frosted with fluffy cream cheese frosting.

Where did the name “hummingbird cake” come from?

The exact origins of why it’s called hummingbird cake are fuzzy, but food historians have traced it back to Jamaica in the late 1960s.

The earliest known published recipe for hummingbird cake appeared in Country Woman Magazine in February 1978, submitted by Mrs. L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro, North Carolina. Her recipe said the cake was “from Jamaica originally.”

According to legend, Jamaican vacationers tasted this cake and thought eating it was like drinking nectar from hummingbirds. The tropical fruits, spices, and rich sweetness evoked the essence of these bright, delicate birds. Hence, the whimsical name “hummingbird cake” was born.

History and Origins

While we may never know the exact details, here’s what we do know about the history of hummingbird cake and how it became popularized.

1960s – Origins in Jamaica

As mentioned, the cake was likely created in Jamaica sometime in the 1960s. Desserts using local tropical fruits like banana and pineapple were common on the island. Cakes featuring these fruits along with warm spices were served at breakfast or for tea time.

Locals and tourists enjoying this new type of spice-laden banana-pineapple cake are said to have remarked that eating it was like tasting the nectar hummingbirds feed on. Thus, the hummingbird cake name was born as a nod to this tropical, sweet-flavored cake.

1970s – Publication in North Carolina

The hummingbird cake gained fame after being published by Mrs. L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro, NC in 1978. Her recipe said it was “from Jamaica originally.” This was likely in the mid to late 1960s.

Once the recipe appeared in Country Woman Magazine, it quickly spread by word of mouth. Home bakers made and shared the cake, spreading it across the region.

The Southern Living Cookbook published a hummingbird cake recipe in 1978 as well. The cake became hugely popular at church potlucks, bake sales, family reunions, and any kind of community get-together.

1980s – National Attention

By the early 1980s, hummingbird cake had appeared in national newspapers and magazines like the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and New York Times.

In 1981, Southern Living magazine published a reader’s recipe for hummingbird cake which they called “an almost instant classic.” It was their most requested recipe that year.

The cake started being entered in baking contests and state fairs, taking home blue ribbons through the 80s which added to its fame. Still extremely popular in the South, hummingbird cake was making its mark across America.

1990s to Now – Modern Variations

From the 1990s until today, hummingbird cake continues to be a staple of Southern baking. It’s been featured on TV shows, in numerous cookbooks, and on blogs.

While classic hummingbird cake recipes remain popular, various riffs and variations have emerged:

  • Using different types of nuts – walnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts
  • Adding shredded coconut or swapped for coconut milk
  • Mixing in berries or diced apples
  • Spice variations like ginger, nutmeg, clove, allspice, cardamom
  • Topping with toasted nuts or coconut
  • Cream cheese, lemon, chocolate, peanut butter frostings
  • Cupcakes, cake balls, whoopie pies, and other desserts

The old-fashioned original is still cherished, but hummingbird cake now reflects the modern palate and creative spirit of home bakers today.

Hummingbird Cake Traditions

Beyond origins and history, hummingbird cake is woven into traditions, memories, and food culture. Here’s why this cake remains so deeply loved more than 50 years after its creation.

Southern Hospitality

For Southerners, a slice of hummingbird cake is a symbol of hospitality. It brings people together and signifies community. The cake appears at all manner of gatherings to feed and welcome loved ones.

Baking hummingbird cake shows someone you care. The time and effort spent making it is like an edible gift. A homemade slice says “I want you to feel special.” That message resonates in the giving spirit of the South.

Sense of Place

Hummingbird cake has undeniable Southern roots. For those from the region, it tastes like home. Bananas, pineapple, pecans – these tropical motifs connect to the landscape.

Eating this cake is a taste of Southern nostalgia. It celebrates local ingredients and flavors tied to fond memories and a sense of place. Even Southerners living far from home can get a taste of the South from a well-made hummingbird cake.

Heirloom Recipe

The recipe has been handed down for over 50 years now, passing between friends and generations. Families all have their own versions – some more banana-y, some more pecan-packed.

To Southerners, hummingbird cake is an heirloom. Ask anyone from the South about this cake, and they likely have a story to tell. Baking it connects to tradition, evoking personal memories and heritage.

Many cherish their mother or grandmother’s hummingbird cake recipe. The cake is a culinary keepsake that’s lovingly preserved.

Celebration Cake

With its festive look and electrifying taste, hummingbird cake is a natural for celebrations. It’s become a quintessential birthday cake across the South. The blend of fruit, nuts, and spice makes it well-suited for spring and summer birthdays.

Hummingbird cake is now a popular choice for weddings, too. Showcasing local flavors, the cakes make beautiful rustic or romantic centerpieces. For couples with Southern roots tying the knot, it’s a natural choice.

Any time there’s cause for joy, really – from graduations to anniversaries – hummingbird cake delivers the perfect note of celebration.

How to Make Hummingbird Cake

While every family has their own spin, here is one way to make classic homemade hummingbird cake.


  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups granulated white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
  • 1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained
  • 2 cups bananas, mashed ripe bananas (about 3 medium)
  • 1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • Optional mix-ins: shredded coconut, chopped apple, different spices

For the Frosting

  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • Dash of salt
  • Up to 1/4 cup milk, cream, or pineapple juice for thinning if needed


  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt.
  3. Add the eggs, vegetable oil, crushed pineapple, bananas, pecans, and vanilla. Mix just until combined, do not overmix.
  4. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  5. Allow cakes to cool completely before frosting.
  6. Make the frosting by beating together cream cheese and butter until smooth. Add in powdered sugar, vanilla, and salt. Beat until light and fluffy. Add milk as needed for desired consistency.
  7. Frost the top of one cake layer, then stack the second layer on top. Frost the top and sides with the remaining frosting.
  8. Garnish with chopped nuts, coconut, fruit, or edible flowers if desired. Slice and serve!


  • Be sure to use very ripe bananas. The riper, the better the banana flavor will come through.
  • Drain the pineapple well before using. Excess juice will make your cake batter too thin.
  • When creaming the butter and cream cheese, have them at room temperature for best volume and texture.
  • Hummingbird cake holds well refrigerated for 3-4 days. Or freeze slices up to 2-3 months.
  • Make it your own with mix-ins like ginger, berries, lemon zest, extra spices, etc.


While the classic recipe remains tried and true, hummingbird cake is prime for adaptations. Get creative with these twists!

Tropical Hummingbird Cake

Use coconut milk instead of vegetable oil for super tropical flavor. Fold in an extra 1/2 cup shredded coconut into the batter. Top with toasted coconut.

Hummingbird Cupcakes

Bake mini versions in lined muffin tins for 20-25 minutes. Top with chopped nuts, coconut, or edible flowers.

Spiced Hummingbird Cake

Add extra cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and/or clove to the batter. Boost the spice level for richer flavor.

Hummingbird Whoopie Pies

Bake as cupcakes, then sandwich two together with frosting for fun bite-size whoopies.

Hummingbird Bundt Cake

Bake in a Bundt pan for 60-70 minutes until baked through. Glaze or drizzle with lemon icing.

Hummingbird Poke Cake

Bake cake layers, then poke holes and pour a sweet milk mixture over top before frosting.

Hummingbird Upside Down Cake

Line pan with pineapple rings, then pour batter over and bake until done. Flip onto plate for a pretty topping.

Hummingbird Sheet Cake

Spread the batter in a greased sheet pan and bake 25-30 minutes. Frost as desired for easy large-batch dessert.


Get the answers to some common hummingbird cake questions:

Is hummingbird cake Southern?

Yes, hummingbird cake originated in the Southern United States in the late 1960s or 1970s. It’s considered a quintessential Southern dessert.

Why is it called hummingbird cake?

The cake is named after the bright, tropical hummingbird. The flavor combination evokes the sweet nectar that hummingbirds sip on.

What makes hummingbird cake different?

Hummingbird cake contains tropical fruits – banana and pineapple are signature. It has more spice than typical cakes with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice. The cream cheese frosting sets it apart too.

What nuts go in hummingbird cake?

Pecans or walnuts are most traditional. You can also use macadamia nuts or almonds. Leave them out for a nut-free version.

Can you freeze hummingbird cake?

Yes, hummingbird cake freezes very well for 2-3 months. Wrap slices individually or freeze unfrosted layers to frost later.

Is hummingbird cake healthy?

Hummingbird cake is high in natural sugars from fruit plus contains pecan healthy fats. Enjoy in moderation as part of a balanced diet. The cake does contain gluten and dairy.


From Jamaica to North Carolina to kitchens nationwide, hummingbird cake has become an American classic. With its unique blend of tropical fruit, nuts, and spice, this cake achieves sweet nostalgic bliss in every bite. Getting a slice still feels like a celebratory treat meant to be shared.

The next time you need a crowd-pleasing dessert to showcase Southern hospitality, whip up a homemade hummingbird cake. Its origin may remain folklore, but the delicious magic of this recipe continues to spread joy today. Just be sure to save a second slice before it all disappears!

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