Nothing lights up the landscape on a cold January day like a few male cardinals perched on a snowy branch. Their fiery feathers draw the eye by adding sharp visual contrast to an otherwise black and white world.
The deep scarlet of Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) in an early fall landscape provide a similar effect. In a slightly faded green world, the tall stalks (3 to 5 feet) full of ruby-lipped flowers provide the eye a welcome place to settle.
This beauty, native to our floodplains and swamps, adapts well to more formal garden settings. For most of the year, a low basal rosette of leaves waits patiently. As long as you don’t bury the leaves in mulch or let the soil go completely dry, flower stalks will shoot up in mid-summer. A few flowers open in early August, but in my yard, they set the landscape on fire from late August through most of September.
Hummingbirds, always seduced by tubular red flowers, are the primary pollinators. Although I also have observed swallowtail butterflies delicately inserting their long tongues for the nectar.
New plants form a clump around the original rosette and are easy to pull apart and replant when flowers are replaced by seed capsules. After I relocate the new rosettes, I carry the seed stalks down to my floodplain, shaking them vigorously to release the seeds. If I’m lucky, next year, scarlet spikes will glow among the jewelweeds and goldenrods that also light my autumn wetland.
Two years ago, I decided to add our other native lobelia to my landscape. One of the many benefits of membership in the North Carolina Botanical Garden is the free seed giveaway that members are offered every year. They send you a list of the native seeds they have to offer, and you send in your selections. Of course, the sooner you send in your picks, the more likely you are to get what you asked for. High on my list: Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica).
Great Blue Lobelia seeds proved to be just as easy to germinate as their Cardinal Flower cousins. I ended up with many, many tiny seedlings. I opted to grow them in pots for a year to get them to a better size for transplanting success. Last fall, I set out the basal rosettes in areas where my Cardinal Flowers were already flourishing.
Great Blue Lobelia flower stalks don’t grow quite as tall as their carmine cousins, topping out at a height of usually no more than three feet. But the deep blue flowers provide a tranquil, cooling rest for the eyes. And hummingbirds seem to enjoy them almost as much as Cardinal Flowers.
Because all parts of both species are quite poisonous, they are supposed to be less tasty to deer. But I’ve noticed that hungry deer will happily eat the flower stalks if given an opportunity. However, inside my deer-fenced area, and in a few other protected spots, my lobelias are flourishing, bringing a welcome burst of color to my late summer landscape.