Anticipating Spring: Snowmelt and Flooding

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

It’s not that there was so much more snow than normal this year, but the unrelenting cold through January and February meant there was no mid-winter thaw, so a whole winter’s worth of snow is now melting.

Our swale project – diverting snowmelt away from barn — is only partly completed, so for this spring again, we will need to park the cars on the road side of the low area and wade, with our rubber boots on, through puddles to get to the house and barn. The wooded hills around us give up their moisture slowly; the puddles last for weeks.

Spring wet is a perfectly natural and predictable thing in this part of the world and, naturally, there are many plants that are adapted to a regime of abundant spring moisture and a much drier late summer. Sure, there are a some species that want year-round moisture – they grow around seeps and spring-fed pools. However, most of our common “wetland” plants thrive in sites that vary from a few inches of standing water in the spring to a water table well below the surface by late summer. In fact, some of our showiest and most colourful wildflowers and some of our most fruitful native shrubs like these conditions.

Vivid red cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), beloved of hummingbirds in late summer, is just such a wildflower. Gardeners who are having a hard time establishing cardinal flowers and who are beginning to wonder whether it is actually perennial, are probably not able to give it a soggy enough spring.

In built-up urban areas, where the need to drain away from foundations affects the whole of a small yard, moist spots are usually created at the edges of lined ponds and preformed pools. These moist areas do not follow the natural fluctuations of the seasons. Cardinal flowers (and many other exciting flowers) can flourish in such artificial wetland gardens. However, if you are lucky enough to have a naturally occurring low damp spot in your suburban or ex-urban yard, PLEASE stop complaining about it. You have the greatest opportunity to grow something really wonderful, a community of colourful, wildlife-enhancing native plants. Start with a colony of cardinal flower.

An expanse of cardinal flower at the edge of Horse Lake.
An expanse of cardinal flower at the edge of Horse Lake.



Published by

Trish Murphy

Artist: botanical, still life, and natural history illustration. Garden designer: native plants and naturalistic gardens