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.

Anticipating Spring: Snowmelt and Flooding

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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.