Popular for their height and bright color, cardinal flowers are relatively easy to grow. They do best in very moist environments, and may be a good choice if you have a pond or water feature that keeps the soil wet. Cardinal flowers usually do best when planted as young plants rather than as seeds. These plants do not do well in dry areas.
Cardinal flowers are perennials of the Lobelia family. They bloom mid-summer through fall in a vibrant red and can reach 2 feet (60.96 cm) or more in height. This popular perennial is native throughout the Americas, from Canada to northern Columbia. While found in the wild, hybrid varieties are available as well.
Wild cardinal flowers typically only reach 2 feet (60.96 cm) in height, but hybrids of this popular perennial can reach up to 4 feet (1.2 m). A central rigid stem supports rough textured leaves up to 6 inches (15.24 cm) in length, topped with a raceme of tubular scarlet flowers. The flowers are about 1.5 inches (3.81 cm) long with no discernible scent, but their shape, bright color, and nectar often attract hummingbirds and butterflies.
In wetlands that would cause other plants to rot, the cardinal flower thrives. It prefers moist rich soil, and can only tolerate dry soil briefly. The cardinal flower grows in light sun in areas where summers are milder; in the south, it prefers a shadier environment. Growing cardinal flowers from seed is possible, but it is preferable to use transplants, as the young seedlings are delicate.
While cardinal flowers are somewhat short-lived perennials, they propagate easily by removing the young plants from the mature plants in the fall. If the flowers remain through bloom, they can reseed. There are some hybrid varieties available with pink or white flowers; these hybrids tend to be more sensitive to the cold. Mulching will help preserve the moisture in the soil as well as protect the cardinal flower from the cold winter temperatures.
The tall nature of the cardinal flower, coupled with its brilliant red blooms, make for a solid vertical element in a garden. This plant does very well near water, such as a pond or stream bed. It is also a popular addition to any hummingbird or butterfly garden. The key to successfully growing cardinal flowers in any garden is making sure it has plenty of moisture.
Containing a number of alkaloids, all parts of the cardinal flower are poisonous and toxic if consumed in large quantities. Despite this fact, a number of North American native peoples used cardinal flowers for various medicinal purposes. The Cherokee used the root of the cardinal flower to treat stomach trouble and hard to heal sores, and the leaf of the plant as an analgesic and cold remedy. Iroquois natives thought the cardinal flower could do many things, including curing a fever and acting as a love potion.