Friday, August 3, 2012


Cardinal-flower beside the Moose River in the Nelson Lake vicinity, August, 2010
Cardinal-flower -- © Dave Spier

This native perennial grows wild along streambanks and in swamps and other wet places up and down the eastern half of the U.S., northeast into Canada and south to Columbia. I've found it in places like Copper Rock Falls on the Grass River (St. Lawrence County) and beside the Moose River (Herkimer County). The plant can reach two or three feet in height, making it a nice addition to any garden if you want it closer to home.

The Cardinal-flower (Lobelia cardinalis) gets its name from the bright-red blossoms hugging the upper stem. (Although sometimes called a spike, it is technically a raceme because of short flower stalks called pedicels.) Look closely at an individual corolla [flower] and you’ll notice three wide lobes forming a lower lip while two narrow lobes extend to the sides like arms. The male and female parts, also scarlet colored, form a narrow projection emerging like a crane above the petals. The base of the flower is a tube that seems perfectly made for hummingbird beaks.

Leaves are lance-shaped, long-pointed and serrated or toothed on the edges and they alternate on a single, main stalk.

Cardinal-flower contains alkaloids and should be considered toxic, as are other members of the genus Lobelia. In spite of this, Native Americans used root and leaf teas for various ailments.

Cardinal-flower and its relative, the blue-violet Great Lobelia (another moist-ground species) belong to the Lobelia subfamily of the Bluebell family.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at Now you can connect through my Facebook photo page at Dave Spier (photographic naturalist) or my personal page, Dave Spier, northeast naturalist.

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