Cardinal Flower

Matthias de Lobel was a Belgian physician and botanist who died in 1616. He was the first person to try and classify plants according to their characteristics, rather than how they were used medicinally. In honor of his efforts, the genus Lobelia was named after him. Lobelia includes 400 or more species of flowering plants. Today, the genus Lobelia belongs to the family Campanulaceae, or the family Lobelioideae. The group in charge of such matters has not made a final decision, so either family is technically correct.

One species of Lobelia, Lobelia cardinalis, is commonly known as the Cardinal Flower. It is native to North and South America and has bright red flowers on upright flower spikes. A wildflower, Cardinal Flower grows in wet places such as swamps and the banks of streams. It is a perennial, but may only live 7-10 years. Cardinal flower grows in zones 3-8 and blooms mid-summer to mid-fall. It is pollinated by hummingbirds and attracts butterflies, but has no scent. In part shade to full sun, it grows 1-3 feet tall. The seeds are very small and are distributed by wind and rain. I had assumed that the “Cardinal” referred to the red bird, but that is not so. Introduced in Europe in the 1600’s, these flowers were nicknamed Cardinal Flowers because they were red like the headgear worn by Roman Catholic Cardinals.

Lobelia siphilitica is another species of Lobelia, commonly known as Great Blue Lobelia. This one grows a little taller and has blue-violet flowers. It is also a native perennial, blooming late summer to fall. It will tolerate more sun and drier conditions than the Cardinal Flower. It appears in zones 3-9 and also has no scent.

The reason I mention these two species in particular is that I have two plants in my yard called Cardinal Flower, but the scientific name is Lobelia speciosa. My plants are hybrids which resulted from crossing L. cardinalis and L. siphilitica. They have bright red flowers like the cardinalis, but live longer. They are also more tolerant of different soil types and moisture conditions than the two parent plants. They only do well in zones 5-8, but they don’t need wetlands or deadheading, and the blooming period is longer. My specific plants are a type called Fan Scarlet, but there are other similar hybrids that are pink, blue, purple, and many shades of red.

To create a hybrid plant is very time consuming. First, 2 plants with desirable characteristics are identified. These plants are hand pollinated. Once they are grown and set seed, the seed is collected and planted. When the resulting plants are finished growing, they may or may not have the desired traits. It takes many years of testing, research and trials to get the correct combination. Hybrids are created to try and improve color, bloom time, tolerance to weather, and disease resistance. In the case of my Lobelia speciosa, crossing the two parents created a new, improved version.


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