Cardinal Flower

The brightest star of our late summer garden is Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Intensely red, elegantly spired, and abuzz with happy hummingbirds, cardinal flower is the most visually arresting wildflower imaginable. With at least fifty plants in bloom or coming into bloom, the hummingbirds and I are in agreement that we finally have an adequate number of cardinal flower plants. I am going to plant more, though, many more, as we extend the planting along the shore of the pond, and (perhaps next year) along the seasonal stream that flows into the pond.

The locations I have just mentioned give you a clue why cardinal flower is not in every garden – it is unlikely to be perennial unless it is planted in a situation that is moist and even soggy in the spring. Urban and suburban gardens are short on soggy spots unless an effort has been made to construct a pond with a planted edge, or a rain garden, or something similar.

The other fussy thing about cardinal flower is its absolute refusal to winter over in a pot. Actually, these two restrictions both stem from the manner in which cardinal flower renews itself every spring. Last year’s centre dies, and the plant regrows in the spring on offshoots, which need that spring wet to get going. An established colony of cardinal flower, growing, for example, at the edge of a pond with high water in the spring, is perfectly hardy and perennial.

The seeds of cardinal flower are like dust: very, very tiny. And so it follows that the seedlings are tiny too. They are quite robust and tough growers, but they have to get to the third set of leaves before they are even as large as the head of a quilting pin. Sown in the spring, they just are not going to be a marketable size in time for spring planting. When I have year-old plants available in the spring, I have had to plant them out in a wetland  in early fall and then dig up the new rosettes when they are ready in mid spring.. They are still small, but with all that digging in and digging up and repotting, they have to be more expensive than other plants.

If you want cardinal flowers at a good price, buy young plants now to flower next August. I have a special on cardinal flowers this month: they are planted in 5 oz. paper cups to remind you to get them into the ground quickly. If you have a spot that is damp in the spring, perhaps because it collects snowmelt, try growing the hummingbirds’ favourite flower, and spice up your garden with a vivid and elegant wildflower.

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Trish Murphy

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

3 thoughts on “Cardinal Flower”

  1. I’ve never seen these in the wild in Minnesota but have near the Menominee River in Michigan. They were a spectacular sight against the the riverbank and mixed with Eupatorium rugosum and even a few plants of the great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica ).

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    1. I have seen them in great spectacular masses in two places: All around Horse Lake, near the Head of the Trails in Bruce National Park – in full blazing sun, and along the natural mud levees lining the Nottawasaga below the mouth of Willow Creek in Minising Swamp – under the shade of stands or red-silver maples. Seeing even a few plants from a canoe is breath-taking. It is hard to believe anything so intensely coloured is a wildflower of the north woods.

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