Wildflower Tales-Cardinal Flower


“The world is made brighter and sunnier by flowers of such a hue … it arrays itself in this scarlet glory. It is a flower of thought and feeling, too; it seems to have its roots deep down in the hearts of those who gaze at it.” 

Nathaniel Hawthorne



With the first snows coming this past weekend, I am dreaming of beautiful wildflowers that graced my garden this past year.  And one of the finest is the gorgeous bright red flaming flowers of Lobelia cardinalis.  I am featuring this plant for another Wildflower Tale as I link in with Gail@Clay and Limestone for her Wildflower Wednesday meme.

Hawthorne’s description of this flower is spot on.  A perfect name, “scarlet glory”.  I wait patiently in late summer for this stunning flower to appear.  The bright red blooms of Lobelia cardinalis or Cardinal flower is part of the Bellflower Family (Campanulaceae).  This showy perennial is perfect for any garden.IMG_3303

And there are many related species and hybrids in shades of blue, purple, white and deep reds (see one pictured right).  But the intense color of Cardinal flower can be seen from almost anywhere in my back gardens.  This flower species, Lobelia, was named after after the Flemish botanist, Matthias de L’Obel (1538-1616).  It can grow 2-3 feet with spikes of flowers or florets that open from bottom to top.  The flowers are so unusual having 3 petals at the bottom with 2 at the top with dark green leaves that are red tinged on new growth.




Growing Conditions

L. cardinalis thrives on rich, wet soil which remains moist year-round.  It will tolerate amended sand or clay as well as preferring filtered light.  Since the roots require moisture year round, mulching under the leaves helps although the base of the plant should not be covered in winter with leaves or mulch.  It is best to plant them in open wet areas to avoid smothering the plant.  I will have to be diligent when I plant more of these in the future to make sure I site them carefully.

IMG_3507Planting them on the edge of a marsh or pond will keep the plant growing especially in dry summers.  I have mine planted in wet areas of the garden and in the rain gardens amongst the ostrich ferns, rudbeckias, Joe Pye and asters.  They can survive dry stretches, but not for long periods of time.

Cardinal flowers are said to last 7 to 10 years so it is important to propagate more every few years to keep them going.  I will have to work on this next year as many of mine are vanishing in the garden.

These plants can be propagated by seeds, cuttings and divisions.  Seeds ripen about 6-7 weeks after forming as lower flowers on the stalk fade. The seed capsule will open slightly at the top, and it is important to get the seed before it scatters far and wide by wind.  Store dried, cleaned seed in a sealed container in the refrigerator for about 3 months before planting.  The seeds can be kept in the refrigerator for up to three years.

Plant the seeds very thinly and cover with a dusting of soil.  Water the pots from the bottom.  They germinate in about a week in warm soil, but continue to grow slowly.

This plant is easily propagated by dividing it in spring or fall.  To do so you divide the young plants which form around the older base each year.  Make sure to water them well for many weeks.

Another  means of propagation is to bend down the stem down to the soil and fasten it with rocks or sticks for several weeks in the summer. This allows roots and small sets of leaves to form a new plant.

Stem cuttings can be rooted in mid-summer.




Where Are They Found

L. cardinalis is found from southeastern Canada through the eastern and southwestern United States; from the plains to to the Rockies and IMG_7883into California, Mexico and Central America to northern Colombia.

This native plant was introduced to Europe in the 1620s.  Canadian explorers sent it to France initially, but it quickly gained fame and was used widely in European gardens by 1629.

It is found in in its native habitat along ditches, woods edge, stream banks, swamps or ponds, prairies and meadows.




Benefits to Wildlife

Cardinal Flower blooms when ruby-throated hummingbirds are getting ready to migrate south.  The scarlet flowers are magnets for this bird so it is no surprise that hummingbirds actually pollinate this flower.  I have some on the pond edge so I can see the hummers up close.  You can also plant them in containers in a tray of water to give the plant enough moisture to entice the hummers closer.  I might try this next year.  You can barely see the hummer in this fuzzy picture near the pond lobelias.

IMG_8093Other insects cannot easily get into the long tubular flowers.

Lobelia cardinalis also attracts birds, butterflies, and to a lesser degree deer.  Deer will browse the new shoots as I have found.

They are said to be prone to slugs although I have not noticed much if any damage from slugs on my plants.




Folklore and Tales

The name Cardinal flower is said to refer to the bright red robes worn by Roman Catholic cardinals, and inspired Linnaeus to give the species name cardinalis.

Many American Indians used this plant’s roots in a tea to cure for stomach ailments and typhoid. A tea made from the leaves was used for IMG_3591colds, bronchial problems, fevers and headaches.  The Zuni people use this plant externally for rheumatism and to reduce swelling.

The finely ground roots in food was said to be an aphrodisiac.  It was also used  in love potions and placed in food as a love charm.

The Penobscot tribe smoked or chewed the dried leaves instead of tobacco.

The plant contains a number of alkaloids and is considered to be toxic if eaten in large quantities.

Lobelia is being studied , and is said to be a possible drug for neurological disorders.

Cardinal flower was named by North American naturalists and botanists in the late 1940s as the showiest and most interesting wild herbaceous plant.

In the Victorian language of flowers, the Lobelia cardinalis symbolizes Distinction.  A perfect description of this most beautiful flower.



Whence is yonder flower so strangely bright?
Would the sunset’s last reflected shine
Flame so red from that dead flush of light?
Dark with passion is its lifted line,
Hot, alive, amid the falling night.
Dora Read Goodale—Cardinal Flower






Seasonal Celebrations is coming December 1st (although the post will be up on Nov. 29th).  I hope you will join in as we celebrate the changing of the season.  The Winter Solstice will be upon us here in the North and the Summer Solstice in the South.  Details below!


Come Join Us:

Seasonal Celebrations is a time for marking the change of seasons and what is happening in your part of the world during this time.  I hope you will join in by creating a post telling us how you celebrate this time of year whether winter or summer or something else.  Share your traditions, holidays, gardens and celebrations in pictures, poetry or words starting December 1st.  I will post a bit early though around November 29th or 30th.

And it seems so appropriate to collaborate with Beth and her Lessons Learned meme.  What lessons have you learned this past season of fall here in the North and spring in the South.  Then tell us about your wishes, desires and dreams for this new season.The rules are simple.  Just create a post that talks about lessons learned and/or seasonal celebrations.  If you are joining in for both memes please leave a comment on both our blog posts.  Or if you are choosing to join only one meme, leave a comment on that blog post.  Make sure to include a link with your comment.

Beth and I will do a summary post of our respective memes on the solstice (the 20th of December).  And we will keep those posts linked on a page on our blog.  Your post should be linked in the weekend before the equinox to give us enough time to include your post in our summary.  And if you link in a bit late, never fear we will include it on the special blog page (which I still have to create).  The badges here can be used in your post.   So won’t you join in the celebration!!


Next up on the blog:  Friday brings the next Seasonal Celebrations.  And then it is December and another Gardens Eye Journal as we look back at the November garden.

I wrote a guest post over at Vision and Verb.  I hope you will visit this wonderful website of women writers.

I am linking in with Michelle@Rambling Woods for her Nature Notes meme.  It is a great way to see what is happening in nature around the world every Wednesday.

I hope you will join me for my posts once a month at Beautiful Wildlife Garden. See my next post on the 10th.

As always, I’ll be joining Tootsie Time’s Fertilizer Friday.

sharetheloveI am also joining in I Heart Macro with Laura@Shine The Divine that happens every Saturday.

Please remember, to comment click on the title of the post and the page will reload with the comments section.

All original content is copyrighted and the sole property of Donna Donabella @ Gardens Eye View, 2010-2013.  Any reprints or use of content or photos is by permission only.

66 Replies to “Wildflower Tales-Cardinal Flower”

  1. This plant has such bright flowers, sadly I’ve never lived anywhere that it was suited too. In the UK it is sometimes planted as a marginal plant in ponds but then it is slightly tender.

  2. Donna, you can sell plants! The information you give and the pictures you post are so good, I’m almost ready to go shop for this plant! Well, I’d rather wait for spring! I used to have one plant, and it bloomed well, but then it just quit. Thank you!

    1. Tatyana you made me chuckle…perhaps I have missed my calling 🙂

      Several of mine quit too and now I know why….I will definitely be making sure that does not happen again! I am hopeful they self seeded in the we t area in my garden.

  3. It’s a beautiful plant Donna – love your photos. The slugs do love it unfortunately, so I only tried once. My Mum also has problems with the slugs and tried it in tall pots, but then it doesn’t get through the winter. You’re very lucky!

  4. I planted a cluster of cardinal flowers this summer in my garden and their flowers were beacons of bright color. My eye was drawn to them even from the opposite side of the garden. I can’t wait for them to mature and grow into a sizeable clump.

  5. It’s good to know that it’s normal for these plants to be short lived. They are in my dry summer garden. Last spring I finally decided to plant them in a pot with a good sized saucer underneath. Voila, they did wonderfully. Such pretty things, aren’t they? Have a great Thanksgiving Donna.

  6. Hi Donna, Beautiful flower, I’m not really familiar with it. One thing I’m curious about is if it falls in the Mimulus family with other Monkey-flowers or Musk-flowers. I ask because my Grandmother used to show me monkey-flowers in the desert of southern California with that distinctive two petals on top and three on the bottom. The ones we found were all a rusty orange and very hearty, growing on dry hillsides. Yet they were somewhat delicate and beautiful. Do you suppose those were in the same genus with your Cardinal flower? It’s a large family apparently with a lot of color variation.

    1. No Susie they are not in the same family unfortunately but both are lovely. Also cardinal flowers are not desert plants but really love pond edges and wet moist soil.

      What a special memory with your grandmother showing you lovely monkey flowers.

  7. How I wish I could grow this plant. My garden is way to shady and dry. After seeing your fantastic photos I have Cardinal flower envy.

    1. Oh Patty I am sorry it is not something you can grow. I love your ” cardinal flower envy”. That envy happens to me with several flowers not hardy here.

  8. This is certainly a wonderful plant, that clear bright red takes my breath away and the hummingbirds love it. I have grown it in a variety of places but have found it to be a bit fussy and short lived so clearly the conditions were not quite right.

    1. If you have a moist area Jason it should grow but it is short lived no matter where it is grown. I will have to make an effort to site it so it can seed easily and where I can propagate the new florets to keep it going. But wet/moist is the key. Suddenly I love those wet flooded areas in my garden.

  9. I just love intense red flowers, L. cardinalis is just gorgeous! We have a long dry summer, so a plant that needs to be wet all the time might be a problem here, I have seen a few such that are tempting me to grow them but not much available wet soil, except by my hose bib.

    1. It is a special flower needing a special place…those who live near water, have high water tables or live in boggy, swampy areas are graced by this lovely flowers. It makes me love those wet areas in my garden even more now.

  10. Donna this is a beautiful flower I love the purple leaf version too, the flowers do sing out, thanks for a lovely interesting and informative post, keep warm and drive safely in the snow, Frances x

    1. Thanks Frances. This week we are expecting a storm but I am off until next Monday due to our Thanksgiving holiday. Glad you love this flower!

  11. Great post on a beautiful plant. I grow the fire engine red lobelia cardinals and also a wine purple one called Ruby Slippers, which is velvety and dark. I love both. They are really short lived for me — not even the seven years or so that you mention. I tend to lose mine after a couple years. I take cuttings and plant more, trying to keep a good sized stand going, but usually only get a few. Thanks for this profile of one of my favorite color shows in the garden!

    1. I love all the purple and red ones as well Laurrie. Mine don’t last at least 7 years either…more like 3 so I am now working to propagate more too!

  12. The vivid color is stunning. I wonder if it grows here in Louisiana? I’ve not seen it. I Googled, but didn’t see much written about it. Thanks for sharing your lovely images.

  13. Hi Donna, I tried to grow cardinal vine one year from seed and unfortunately it didn’t grow for me. You grow a great variety of beautiful wildflowers! I always enjoy visiting your gardens.
    Hugs, Beth

    1. I bet you can grow this native as it does grow in Iowa Beth and in moist soil.

      I love growing a variety of wildflowers as they draw in so many different critters.

  14. Thanks so much for this post! I saw a cardinal flower once, at the edge of our woods, but never again. I didn’t realize you can get seeds or starts of it, but I’ll look for it. I have a pond where it should be right at home.

  15. Hello Donna, they are beautiful wildflowers. I have seen them growing along streams or wet bog areas. Your photos are beautiful, great post.
    Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

  16. Hello Donna
    I am so behind on reading posts so I want you to know I’m catching up but not leaving comments on each.
    Cardinal flower is one of the few red flowers I have in my garden because I’ll do anything for the birds. 🙂
    I’ve never had slugs on mine and the hummers do seek it out all the time.
    Lorraine Johnson is a frequent speaker at our Ontario gardening events and her books have been my source for native plants to grow well on our property.

    1. I am still trying to catch up with reading posts too Judith. How very lucky that you have heard Lorraine speak and that you also appreciate her books. Maybe one day I will make it up for one of her talks in Ontario 🙂

  17. Hi Donna, even if i am not very fond of the reds in our area, that Lobelia is so beautiful because of the contrast with the greens. And because it is not common to my eyes, i say i love it.

    1. You are too kind. I am not sure if I ever received this award but I will be pleased to accept it and I hope respond in a post soon although it may take me until next month.

  18. I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. Glad you stopped by. My neighbor grows this Lobelia and it is seeded all over her garden. She has offered it, but I don’t keep the garden wet enough for it to thrive.

    1. It was nice…how about yours? Every week I hope to catch up with reading posts and then I run out of time. But this weekend I will be able to spend time reading your posts…I like to take my time and savor the pictures. Have a great weekend Donna.

      1. I had a nice Thanksgiving, thank you for asking. I am posting my dinner this weekend. I had good response to my Mushroom Soup, so I thought to add more recipes.

        Being very busy myself, I can understand being behind. I have a hard time keeping up too and I don’t do awards and memes. How you do it, I am amazed. One nice thing, the landscaping/gardening time over for the year. Once we get snow, business stops for the most part. There is still designing in winter, but no installations.

        1. I will check out the recipe…I had thought to add some recipes, but never had time. I have had to be so organized with my regular posts that I end up scheduling well in advance and writing many posts ahead…exhausting sometimes but I love it.

          Looking forward to more recipes Donna.

  19. Definitley a plant of distinction Donna, and how wonderful to be able to grow it successfully as a hardy plant. I might be able to ge away with it here, though I lack a sufficiently damp area for it to thrive. If Project Pond ever happens it will be on the list for the margins.

  20. USDA says it grows all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, so I should try it. Your presentation is wonderful, so colorful on a dreary day.

    1. Derek perennial lobelia is hardy to zone 3 so you should be OK. And they definitely will seed if you put them in a moist spot.

  21. Thanks for a very informative post of this lovely plant. I have a Lobeli cardinalis ‘Queen Victoria’, it is my third attempt and third place in the garden, I hope I have chosen the right spot this time – if it comes up next spring it will be a first! They all look lovely the first year but have previously failed to reappear, tomorrow I will go out and remove the bark mulch around the base of the plant, thanks for the tip!

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