Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wildflower Wednesday - Cardinal Flower

Lobelia cardinalis, whose common name is cardinal flower, is a plant I've lusted after for years, and the first plant I thought of for the area of our swale that stays moist all the time. Cardinal flowers can be somewhat short-lived, but have a better chance of longer-term survival and self-sowing in consistently moist, or even wet soil in full to part sun.

Native in Illinois, cardinal flowers are highly favored by hummingbirds, their primary pollinators. This year hummingbirds have seemed more scarce than usual here. Although the tiny birds aren't easy to see and even harder to photograph way back where the cardinal flowers are, if we look carefully, we see them sipping nectar from the brilliant red blooms off and on all day.

Aside from a few hostas I've transplanted upstream at the back of the swale as the shade garden has been planted (previously, the overabundant hostas had been 'place holders' in the shade garden,) the plan is to plant exclusively native plants in and around the swale. Three years ago a river birch, red-twig dogwood and a pair of winterberry hollies were planted slightly upstream. They're all thriving in the moist soil. Early this summer, heleniums were added, started from seeds from Monica's seed swap late last winter. They should love the moist soil, but might prefer more sun than they'll get here.

With cultural requirements identical to cardinal flowers, blue lobelia will also be tried in the always-moist part of the swale. It 'only' took about seven years to get the shade garden entirely planted. The swale is much smaller and should go more quickly.

Wildflower Wednesday is celebrated on the fourth Wednesday of the month. For links to more posts, please visit Gail at Clay and Limestone.


  1. Linda, Hi~I adore Cardinal flower and added a red one this year~ Interestingly named 'Fried Green Tomato'. The blue ones are a real temptation~I never see them in the nurseries...they must be rare indeed. To have a swale that stays moist all year sounds ideal! You fortunate gardener~ Glad you joined in the celebration! gail

  2. The Cardinal fower does not do well in my sandy conditions, but the Blue Lobelia would look wonderful with your Cardinal flower. Have a great day.

  3. Hi Linda, I did put in Lobelia Cardinalis in red this year, but it just laid prostrate on the ground. I think it was rootbound and the top had grown too tall. I hope it survives.


  4. I love lobelia but don't have any moist sections of the garden... well, I guess the east wild bed is pretty near a vernal pond in spring, partly shady, and I've been wanting some color back there for yonks. Oh, holla! Have always loved L. cardinalis but also like the blue ones, esp. the L. siphilicata Amy saw on her garden walk.(P.S. It WAS hot the day of the Dearborn walk. I was not kidding about profuse sweating. And because I was so worried about finding a nice shirt to wear I completely abandoned my comfort-only mantra, not realizing that the non-natural material would end up feeling like I was wearing Saran wrap. "Melting" is exactly the word I used! :) (Glad you had fun with your daughter, tho.))

  5. Hi Linda
    Thank you for showing me the Cardinal flower. I didn't know it so far. Probably it doesn't grow in my part of the world. It looks very nice.
    Unfortunately we don't have any hummingbirds *sniff". I'd love to see one in the wild... meanwhile I'm waiting for a picture in your blog :o).
    Kind regards

  6. beautiful cardinal flower, I've posted some rudbekia for Wildflower Wednesday

  7. It sounds like your garden is coming along fabulously. It is wonderful that you are incorporating the natives into your design. I enjoyed your cardinal flower. Mine is in my post today but it has not bloomed yet. I have noticed that there is an absence of hummingbirds or maybe just their sightings. I hope to see them at my plant when it blooms.

  8. There are no moist areas in my garden but this year I have my Dad's cardinal flowers (all in pots). They are just starting to bloom. I'll be watching for the hummers.

  9. Good morning Gail! Aren't they wonderful. And the color. . . could there be a deeper red!

    When you commented on my Bloom Day post, of course I had to google 'Fried Green Tomato' lobelia. Looks like a wonderful cultivar.

    Thank you Garden of Threads, I think the blue lobelia will be wonderful with this one too. I saw them planted together on a recent garden walk. They weren't blooming yet, but the gardener clearly agreed they make a nice combo.

    Hi Eileen, I hope your cardinal flower will survive and thrive for you!

    Hi Monica, I'm thrilled have this moist spot, especially since our shade garden is so dry. (well, thrilled except for the mosquitoes! I hope planting the swale will reduce the standing water and the mosquito population.)

    L. siphilicata (Great blue lobelia) is exactly what I'll be looking for. They're so pretty.

    I know what you mean about the heat. We hung out on the patio with the kids that day, but retreated indoors to cool off periodically. It's days like that I'm really grateful for all our shade.

    Hi Alex, my pleasure! Hummingbirds are pretty shy, and very fast-moving. It's definitely a challenge photographing them. I've tried to get a shot of them on the cardinal flowers, even from a bit of distance, but they sense my presence and fly off. The only time I've gotten good photos of them was once while visiting my mom.

    Thanks for the reminder - I had planned to add a couple of those photos to my sidebar. You can see them in a slideshow I did last summer @

    Thank you Crafty! Now I kind of wish I'd done native rudbeckias instead of 'Goldsturm.' Oh well! The Goldsturms do great here with so little sun.

    Hi Gardening in a Sandbox, we have a lot of natives in our shade garden, but the swale will be my first garden ever that's exclusively native.

    It shouldn't be long now before your cardinal flowers are blooming. Hopefully they'll draw the hummers. They sure have done the trick here!

    Hi Marnie, I hadn't thought of trying them in pots. It's an excellent idea!

    They are such hummingbird magnets, I have no doubt you'll be seeing them enjoying the blooms.

  10. Garden girl, I just learnt a new word... swale. This lobelia plant is so interesting. Doesn't really look like a plant for moist area.
    And, the bright red flowers are so attractive. Definitely a wonderful plant to have!

  11. Looks like you've found the perfect spot for these cardinal flowers, Linda. I would love to add some of these lovelies to attract more hummingbirds, but right now the trick would be to find a place in my garden that is consistently moist. Of course, this past June I did have a few "swales" with all the rain we had:)

  12. You've got a good plan for your swale. I'll be interested in seeing how it develops. Those moist areas can be difficult. I love the cardinal flower so much that the one year I grew it I planned to make it a focal point of a garden for the next year. It did not return:( But it is still so very pretty! I am trying the blue lobelia and hope it stays around a bit longer.

  13. Anonymous2:52 PM

    That color is beautiful. The red really pops out in the dappled shaded of the picture.

  14. Anonymous3:49 PM

    After reading this, I know why I couldn't get cardinal flower started in my sunny, dry garden. Lobelia doesn't do that well, either.

    Thanks for posting the info.

  15. Hi Stephanie, I'd never heard of a swale until I moved here! I think there are a lot of people who don't think it looks like a plant for a moist area, and try to grow it without any luck. I sure hope it likes it here - this is year two - so far, so good!

    I think so too Rose. I'm so glad I can finally turn my attention to planting there, and I'm really happy grass won't grow there, or the Lawn Man would have appropriated it a long time ago. ;)

    Thank you Tina. I'm sure it will involve some trial and error. Actually, already has. I killed a forsythia back there a few years ago. Even though it was planted upstream, it was still too wet.

    I love having that brilliant color back there MBT! Even from the patio, that red really pops.

    I think they really need a lot of water Sandy. I'm sorry they haven't done well for you. Glad the info helped you know what the problem was.

  16. I bet the blue lobelia will thrive in the swale as well; mine is very happy in a soggy, slightly sandy spot.

  17. That is a fantastic shade of red. Thanks for sharing.

  18. Thats a beautiful photo - that plant has only ever survived one of our scottish winters even though I gave it all its favourable conditions - I think its spires of vivid red are so striking.

  19. I have the perfect location for lobelia and have tried it several times, but I just can't seem to keep it alive, neither cardinalis nor syphilitica. I love them both, but will have to admire them in other people's gardens! Beautiful photo of it!

  20. I really hope so Rose! Being able to grow these two lobelias has been a long-time dream. My fingers are crossed for cardinalis - sure hope it comes back next year, and even seeds itself this year. Hopefully the hummers are doing their job well!

    I think so too Rosey - that red is amazing.

    Thank you leavesnbloom! I'm sorry yours didn't survive. They sure can be temperamental plants. My fingers are crossed I'll see these come back next year.

    I hear you Kylee - from what I understand they can be tough to keep. I sure hope these stick around.

  21. Your Cardinal Flower is a beauty! With jumping around today, I am seeing more and more interesting Wild flowers around the country!

  22. Thanks Skeeter! I love it, and the hummers do too. They've been scarce around here this summer, but since the cardinal flower started blooming, they visit several times a day - mission accomplished!

    I'm so glad Gail started Wildflower Wednesday it's wonderful seeing everyone's wildflowers!


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