Cardinal Flower
Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 9/14/97

In late summer, Durham's rivers, streams and even roadside ditches carry their most stunning ornament, the cardinal flower. Ostentatious in beauty, no other native wildflower attracts the eye with such a deep red, scarlet or crimson. It blooms at a time when the calls of birds and insects have quieted along the river, almost as if to make up for the disappearance of their cheery voices. It suddenly appears at a time when the air is heavy with heat and humidity and the river bank a seemingly impenetrable jungle. 

The cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis, was first noticed by Europeans growing in the French colony of Canada. Plant explorers collected it and presented it to their queen back in the Old World, Henrietta Maria. The story goes that when she saw it, she burst out in laughter saying that it looked like the scarlet stockings worn by the "cardinals" of the Catholic Church. The name took immediately for this species. The generic part of its scientific name is a memorial to the 17th century Flemish botanist, Matthias de Lobel. 

Along with its sister species of Lobelia in the bluebell family, which are mostly flowers of blue and lavender, the roots of this group of flowers were used by native Americans to treat the sores associated with sexually transmitted diseases. Later, in post colonial times, a whole cult of healing evolved around the use of Lobelia as an expectorant and as an emetic. But the side effect of upset stomachs proved dangerous and its use today as a medicinal plant is negligible. In fact, the cardinal flower is included in virtually all works on dangerous and poisonous plants of North America. 

The spike-like inflorescence of the cardinal flower rises two to five feet above the river's edge from basal offshoots. Its stalk is unbranched until just below the flowering top. The blossom lasts for more than a month with many tubular flowers, each about an inch and a half long in an elongated cluster. The individual flower consists of five petals on two lips; the upper lobe has two petals and the lower has three. Its leaves are alternate, lance-shaped and toothed.

Perhaps the plant's most important partner is the ruby-throated hummingbird. This tiny, migratory bird from the rain forests of Central America, travels thousands of miles to participate in the pollination of the cardinal flower. The hummingbird's long bill easily navigates the tubular flower to retrieve tiny drops of nectar, thus binding together geographically distant realms of our planet and teaching us about the interconnectedness of all living things.
Although found in its natural state as a river herb throughout our state, the cardinal flower has proven surprisingly adaptable in different conditions when introduced into gardens. Moderate sun and damp soil will maintain it well in almost any urban setting. It can even survive in a pot. When planted with its sister species, the great blue Lobelia of our mountain region, the two make a handsome pair.

Laura Martin, in her book entitled Southern Wildflowers, describes a Native American use of the flower that is in keeping with all that the color red holds in meaning. "Cardinal flower was, perhaps, most cherished for its use as a love charm. Taken out of the ground with much ceremony, the root was then touched to all parts of a woman's body. The power of the root was such that the woman would supposedly become irresistible. Cardinal flower was thought to be useful in this manner for all ages of women, but was considered particularly effective for older women.''

If the color red truly inflames the passions of humans, our visual link with the cardinal flower must be important. When nature sends a messenger to us that becomes a metaphor, symbol or mirror of our own deepest feelings and meditations, we enter a realm of intimacy with the earth that can fill our lives with moments of spontaneity, inspiration and profound meaning. The cardinal flower is but another example of how I have found the river community very rich and generous in its power to inform and inspire us.
Photo by Riverdave: cardinal flower