Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Wednesday's Wildflower: Cardinal Flower

Fiery, red torches have set the wetlands aflame.

These crimson spires can be seen waving across the Southeastern third of our continent, rising from stream banks, swamps, marshes, and anywhere the soil is rich and saturated.

Cardinal Flower is arguably the showiest member of the Lobelia family, and certainly one of the reddest flowers we will see all year.

The showy racemes rise 2-6 feet from a basal rosette of coarsely toothed leaves.

These leaves are practically evergreen, appearing long before the flowers do, and often continue photosynthesizing on through the winter, months after the blooms fade.

The scarlet blooms (which can be white or pink on rare occasions) are composed of 3 spreading lower petals and two upper ones, all conjoined at the base into one graceful corolla.

Its typical bloom period begins in mid-late Summer, continuing into early Autumn.

The flowers open from the bottom of the raceme to the top, with seed capsules forming and ripening even as the upper flowers open.

The rest of the seeds sometimes take as long as 7 weeks to mature once the plant is done blooming. Over time, they are gradually released from the capsules to be dispersed by water.

While we tend to associate Cardinal Flower with the bird that shares its name, it is in fact referencing the red robes worn by Roman Catholic cardinals.

Its Latin moniker is also fairly easy to remember: Lobelia cardinalis.

Lobelia is in honor of the Flemish botanist and King James I's physician, Matthias de l'Obel (1538-1616). Cardinalis is Latin for "scarlet."

While the plant is generally considered toxic, the degree of its toxicity isn't truly known.

It has certainly had its medicinal uses throughout history.

Cardinal Flower contains an alkaloid known as lobeline, which has a similar effect on the nervous system as nicotene.

The plant has emetic, expectorant and nervine qualities. The root is analgesic, anthelmintic, antispasmodic and stomachic.

The Cherokee brewed a tea from the roots to ease stomach troubles and to expel worms.

It was also used as an ingredient in a drink to ease pain. A leaf tea was made to reduce fevers. A cold tea was snuffed for a nose bleed. The tea was also taken for rheumatism. A warm leaf tea was taken for colds.

A poultice of crushed leaves was applied to treat a headache. A root poultice was applied for hives and skin irritations. They also used the plant to treat croup and syphilis.

Cardinal Flower is an important nectar source for pollinators, especially hummingbirds. In fact, the red, tubular blossoms were formed with these tiny birds in mind, who are particularly drawn by their scarlet color.

Long-tongued butterflies are also frequent visitors to these flowers, primarily swallowtails and sulfurs.

A Cloudless Sulfur
As if the towering red wands weren't enough to please our eyes, the presence of graceful hummingbirds and fluttering butterflies completes the perfect scene of ethereal beauty.

Despite its apparent toxicity, deer will occasionally browse its foliage.

If you have a low, wet place in your yard, or even a small water garden, you can enjoy Cardinal Flower even closer. It does well in both shade and sun, but the more sun it gets, the wetter its feet need to be.

It's fairly easy to sprout from seed, so if you find some growing in a roadside ditch or some other public place (that isn't protected, of course), you can collect some seeds in the fall and scatter them over your selected location.

Cardinal Flower is a plant that demands we pause and appreciate its astounding beauty.

Make sure you spend some time wandering along your local water ways during these last few weeks of summer. If Cardinal Flower is to be found there, you are sure to see it!

Be sure to join us for next Wednesday's Wildflower!

Click here to read about last week's wildflower, Tall Ironweed

Medicinal information herein is shared strictly for anecdotal purposes. Do not attempt to self-medicate with wild herbs. Please consult a doctor first.

Next flower->


Plants for a Future

Wildflowers of Tennessee - Jack B. Carman

All About Tennessee Wildflowers - Jan W. Midgley

Cherokee Plants and Their Uses - a 400 Year History - Paul B. Hame. & Mary U. Chiltoskey

Forest Plants of the Southeast and their Wildlife Uses - James H. Miller & Karl V. Miller


  1. What a beautiful flower! Thanks for sharing at the Weekend Blog Hop at My Flagstaff Home!


  2. Beautiful flower, I don't believe I have ever seen one like that. Thank you for sharing with the Clever Chicks Blog Hop! I hope you’ll join us again next week!

    Kathy Shea Mormino
    The Chicken Chick

  3. These are really pretty. I love the vibrant color!

    Thanks again for linking up with Green Thumb Thursday. I hope to see you back this week.