I would like to do regular weekly posts with a spotlight on native plants that can be incorporated into traditional garden settings and are beneficial to pollinators. Today I will focus on the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), which holds a special place in my heart. Thinking of cardinal flower always takes me right back to when I was a kid up at my parents cottage along the shore of a small lake in the Kawarthas, a beautiful part of south-central Ontario. Often on hot summer evenings we would all pile into the little army-green metal row boat for a relaxing evening of fishing, and just being, on the open water. The boat was perhaps the ugliest row boat I have ever seen but my mom and dad adored it and many hours of my childhood were spent bobbing up and down in the waves, sprawled out across the hard metal seat. There were many mid-summer nights when my mom would want to take the boat into one of the culverts along the lake that were known to have cardinal flowers. She seemed to get so much joy out of seeing them blossom. So my dad would drive the boat over then cut the motor and we would glide slowly along, close to shore. And we would sit quietly, often only whispering if something needed to be said, as though the flowers would only appear if they did not know we were there. I am not sure what it was exactly about those flowers that beckoned my mom – perhaps because she knew they fed the hummingbirds that she loved to watch flit about her garden, or perhaps it was just the vivid red colour that stood out in a sea of green bullrushes and water reeds. But whatever the reason her happiness at seeing them was palpable and, I suppose, infectious as now I cannot help but feel excited every time I see them! So when I found them for sale at the Royal Botanical Gardens Plant faire this past spring I gleefully purchased three of them. Two of them I planted in the ditch that runs along the road in front of our house – these have not survived as the summer has been very hot and dry and these plants thrive in moist soil. The last one though I planted up next of the house, in the garden, next to a downspout. And this one has already rewarded me with those striking red flowers!
The cardinal flower is a short-lived herbaceous perennial native to Southeastern Canada and the Eastern United States. The long tubular shape of the flower excludes many pollinators but rewards hummingbirds, with their long narrow beaks, with its nectar. They typically grow a few feet high and have a rather long blooming period beginning mid to late summer and lasting into early fall. They grow best in partial shade, though can also do well in full sun provided they do not dry out. The key to success, in my opinion, is moist to wet soil. I have also incorporated them into the pollinator garden at the school so I give them a good drink from my carefully allocated water supply every time I visit. I have not yet seen any hummingbirds, but I will know if they have been if I am lucky enough to get seeds!