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What Is a Cardinal Flower?

Historically, the roots of the cardinal flower were used to treat stomach aches.
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  • Written By: S. Williams
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 27 September 2014
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A cardinal flower, which has the Latin name of Lobelia cardinalis, is a wildflower that is native to North America. This flower grows to a height of 3 to 6 feet (0.9 to 1.8 m) and has bright red flowers that adorn the ends of its spikes. The blooms have a tubular base with three lower petals that spread out and down, and the upper two petals are more erect. The bright red robes of Roman Catholic cardinals inspired the name of the cardinal flower.

With its tubular structure, many insects are not able to move within the cardinal flower sufficiently to allow pollination. Instead, this flower relies on hummingbirds to provide this service as they feed on the nectar. When this ornamental flower is planted, it will attract birds and butterflies in addition to the hummingbirds.

The cardinal flower is a perennial, which means that it will grow back each year without replanting. It can grow in almost any area, from ditches and roadsides to plains and meadows, and it is found in virtually every area of the United States as well as Canada. The cardinal flower is tolerant of both sun and shade, but it likes a very moist soil. To propagate this flower, new seeds can be planted, or a stem can be bent into the wet soil and secured with a rock or stick.

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Cardinal plants are considered medicinal plants. The American Indians harvested the roots to brew teas that would treat stomach aches, syphilis, typhoid and worms. For colds, croup, nosebleeds, fevers and headaches, they would make a tea from the leaves. Some would place the ground root in food as an aphrodisiac, and others would use chopped roots in love potions and charms.

If consumed in large amounts, the cardinal flower is highly toxic. Some symptoms of poisoning by this flower include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and weakness. In extreme cases, convulsions and coma can occur. Principle toxins are alkaloids lobelamine, lobeline and a volatile oil.

The Lobelia genus includes other types of flowers. The Lobelia erinus, or trailing lobelia, has blue, purple, red, pink or white blooms and grows only 3 to 6 inches (about 8 to 15 cm) tall. Known as the Mexican cardinal flower, Lobelia laxiflora is a red-and-yellow version of the standard cardinal flower. Lobelia siphilitica, or the great blue lobelia, grows 2 to 3 feet (less than 1 m) tall and has blooms that are 12 inches (about 30 cm) wide. In scarlet and reddish-purple, the Lobelia tupia is nicknamed "the devil's tobacco," and it grows blooms that are 3 feet (0.9 m) wide.

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