Cardinal Flower: If You Love Red, You Need this Plant

I’m very fond of flowers that are vigorous and tough, almost thuggish. But there are a few fussy plants that I still find worthwhile. One of these is cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis).

Cardinal flower, a North American native, blooms in a clear, vibrant shade of red that you find almost nowhere else. The tubular flowers have a fascinating shape, with a prominent three-lobed lower “lip.” This is a premier plant for attracting hummingbirds.

Lobelia cardinalis likes part sun and lots of moisture. I have mine growing by a downspout. They have semi-evergreen basal rosettes. These need winter protection where I live, and are vulnerable to both smothering and heaving. The flowers grow on stalks that can reach 3′ or higher and often need staking.

You have to be careful about which plants you combine with cardinal flower. They can’t handle much competition. Up until now, I’ve been using like annual blue lobelia (Lobelia erinus). I’m thinking of trying scotch moss (Sagina subulata) or Australian violet (Viola hederacea).

Great blue lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica) is a more adaptable related species with blue flowers. The botanical name comes from the fact that people thought it could be used to cure syphilis. They were wrong. There are also a number of cultivars, but none of them have the straight species’ captivating shade of red.

So if you love red, don’t mind providing a little coddling, and have a moist spot in part sun – give cardinal flower a try. What are your favorite plants for red, or that require a little coddling?

16 Comments on “Cardinal Flower: If You Love Red, You Need this Plant

  1. Your Lobelia is so pretty! I think I need to move mine. It probably gets too much sun. Do you have much humidity where you live? Mine doesn’t do well with our months of high humidity.

    • We do have hot, humid summers, though I’m guessing not as long or as intense as yours. Giving it a little more shade might help.

  2. You’re cardinal flowers looks great! I just started some cardinal flower from seed this past winter, they’re looking pretty good although they won’t flower this year. I’m having to give them a bit of extra water though to help them through this horrid drought. I’ve tried growing it before with no success, but I was a lazy gardener back then. I’d like to plant some Orange Jewelweed (impatiens capensis) with mine since I often see them together in nature, and the combo really packs a visual punch.

    • Thanks. We had orange jewelweed in our backyard when we lived in Wisconsin. That would be a beautiful combination, but jewelweed spreads like crazy when it’s happy.

  3. I love Cardinal flower almost as much as hummingbirds do. It is a part of the next wave for my unrestricted front garden (it’s not native to where I live). I had a number of the red-leafed variety in my city garden, the cultivar seemed more tolerant of slightly drier soil; I think the Scotch moss is an excellent choice. Mine grew among that and black mondo grass, and didn’t seem to mind being among some air-ier shrubs –specifically Dwarf Fothergilla. Very nice!

  4. I think the cultivars, many of which are hybrids between cardinalis and syphilitica, are definitely easier to grow. They don’t have quite the same bloom color, however.

  5. I have killed this plant several times and will not try again. However, it grows wild up in the Blue Ridge Mts. where I like to camp, so I will enjoy it there.

    • I feel your pain. We moved twice before I had a yard with the right conditions to keep this guy alive. (Note: that’s not the reason we moved.)

  6. Wow, you have a nice stand of cardinal flowers! I have tried growing those and the blue ones, but they haven’t lived for long. I just planted a blue one last year, and it did not come back this spring. Seeing yours makes me think I want to try again. I do have a spot near a Culver’s root, which gets enough water to do well, and afternoon shade.

    The red flowers that do well here are the monarda ‘Jacob Kline’, and some kind of agastache that reseeded. I even have one blooming in the crack of a sidewalk that no one walks on. I guess I don’t have very many red flowers around here. I like to grow a pineapple sage in a pot each summer, but it blooms very late in the fall, and sometimes the freeze comes before the buds open. I like to make tea with it, along with some decaf tea bags.

    • There are a couple of species in the genus Silene that have red flowers, S. regia and S. stellata. I’ve tried to grow both and failed, but maybe you would have better luck.

  7. I *love* red flowers – crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ and hibiscus ‘Luna Red’ are two that need no coddling in my yard, although the hibiscus comes up so late each year that I am sure it has succumbed over the winter.

  8. We have a small (but increasing) stand of Crocosmia “Lucifer” that have really vibrant red flowers at this time of year. Earlier in the year we had Tulip “Red Riding Hood”. Both plants’ flowers would blow out the red sensor on the camera! I think that’s all the red we have.

    • I didn’t mention annuals, of course. I have some cosmos that are red and orange, and some deep red canna lilies. ‘Lucifer’ is on my ever-expanding list of plants I want to try. Does it need full sun?

      • I think Crocosmia would prefer full sun and would flower more. The small batch we have are planted underneath a cherry with a dense canopy so get little sun but still flower and set seed.

  9. Pingback: More of What I've Got Going On in the Dirt | mamapundit

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