Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

By far our most striking Lobelia. The brilliant red of this spectacular native flower has made it a favorite in the perennial garden. In the wild, it’s most at home in damp areas with at least partial shade; here it was growing in a moist thicket in Schenley Park, where it was blooming in late July.

Gray describes the genus and the species:

LOBELIA [Plumier] L. Calyx 5-cleft, with a short tube. Corolla with a straight tube split down on the (apparently) upper side, somewhat 2-lipped; the upper lip of 2 rather erect lobes, the lower lip spreading and 3-cleft. Two of the anthers in our species bearded at the top. Pod 2-celled, many-seeded, opening at the top. — Flowers axillary or chiefly in bracted racemes ; in summer and early autumn. (Dedicated to Matthias de l’Obel, an early Flemish herbalist.)

• Flowers deep red, large; stem simple.

L. cardinàlis L. (CARDINAL-FLOWER.) Tall (0.6-1.3 m. high), perennial by offsets, smoothish; leaves oblong-lanceolate, slightly toothed; raceme elongated, rather 1-sided, the pedicels much shorter than the leaf-like bracts; the large corolla intensely red, rarely rose-color or white. — Low grounds, s. N. B. to Ont., and southw. — Hybrids with the next species [L. siphilitica] occur.

In Our Common Wild Flowers of Spring and Autumn (1906), Alice M. Dowd gives us a bit of the lore of this favorite flower:


” The cardinal-flower whose heart-red bloom
Glows like a living coal upon the green
Of the midsummer meadows.”

—Richard Watson Gilder.

Not even in the brilliant leaves of the October woods is there anything to match the color of the cardinal-flower. In moist ground along the streams the vivid red of its clustered flowers appears in July and remains until October. “It comes in with the heat and goes out with the frost.”

The smooth stems grow from two to four feet high and have dark green, lance-shaped leaves, the upper ones without any petioles. From leaf-like bracts along the upper part of the stalk the flowers grow on short pedicels in a somewhat one-sided raceme. Out of the five-cleft calyx-cup rises the red tube of the corolla. Three petals, partly united beyond the tube, form a spreading lijp on the lower side of the flower.

A slit down to the very base of the corolla separates the two upper petals. In this slit a slender tube of united stamens rises high, and curves slightly downward at its tip, where the dark ring of anthers, bending toward the lower petals, makes it look like the extinguished torch that has kindled the flaming corolla.

Through the tube of united anthers the stigma pushes its way, with lips tightly closed until it has grown out of reach of the stamens.

The corolla-tube is too long for insects. Even the bumblebee finds this flower-well too deep for him to draw nectar easily. The favored guest here is the humming-bird. Like the columbine and the painted cup, the cardinal-flower wears the color that humming-birds prefer. Scarlet flowers and hummingbirds belong chiefly to America. Humming-birds are found only on the American continent and in the West Indies.

Scarlet flowers are rare in Europe and Asia, but, with their bird-friends, they are especially abundant in the West Indies, Mexico, and tropical South America.

The cardinal-flower is a native of North America. An English botanist, writing in 1630, mentions it, and says he had its root from France. It was sent to France from Canada by some of the early French settlers, and it is quite probable that it received its name in France from its resemblance in color to the cap and cloak of the cardinals in the Roman church. It takes kindly to cultivation, and perhaps it is destined to survive only as a garden flower when it has been lost to field and meadow.

It is sometimes called red lobelia, for it is a true lobelia, though all of its sisters are blue. Most of the lobelias, great and small, continue to blossom through September. The most common species is called Indian tobacco. It is generally found in dry, open fields or by the roadside. It has small, light blue flowers, and large, round, inflated seed-boxes joined to the calyx.

Its relationship to the cardinal-flower is evident in the split corolla, the tube of stamens, and the three-cleft upper lip. It is poisonous to taste and is used in medicine.

In Wild Flowers Every Child Should Know (1914), Frederic William Stack worries, as many other writers did, about the future of this marvelous beauty, which was being picked into oblivion by thoughtless flower-gatherers:

The Cardinal Flower is one of the most striking and attractive of our showy flowers. It possesses the most gorgeous, glowing red colouring imaginable, and because of its unsurpassing vividness and brilliancy, its beauty is its undoing. It is a target for every • ruthless, clasping hand that can reach it, and for this reason it is rapidly becoming exterminated. In intensity of colouring it is the Scarlet Tanager of the wild flowers. The usually single, rather large, slightly angular, smoothish stalk is leafy and hollow, and grows from two to four and a half feet high, from perennial off-shoots. The thin, smooth, or slightly hairy leaves are oblong to lance-shaped. They are irregularly toothed, and the upper ones clasp the stalk. The colour is dark green. The numerous, deep cardinal flowers are gathered in a loose and often onesided terminal spike. The tube-like corolla, which is an inch long, is split down the upper side, and has five narrow, pointed, flaring, velvety lobes. These lobes are bent at right angles, the three central ones set together, and partly separated from the other two; which stand somewhat erect or recurved, and at right angles with the central one, and opposite each other. The five stamens are united in a tube around the style, and stand out, far beyond the throat of the flower, with a prominent, curving tip. The green calyx has five long, slender parts. Occasionally the flowers are pinkish or white. The Cardinal Flower is found in very moist situations, commonly on the banks of streams and ditches from July to September, from Florida, Texas, and Kansas, well into Canada.

Asa B Strong, in his American Flora (1851), gives us the supposed meaning of the plant in the “language of flowers”:

CARDINAL-FLOWER. Your beauty is heightened by contrast. A beautiful flower, growing in swamps, among rushes and brambles. When first seen it elicits emotions of surprise and pleasure.


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