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Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Beautiful Cardinal Flower

There is still time to take in the beauty of the Cardinal Flower in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I sat on the bank of a mountain creek the other day and watched a grouping of Cardinal Flowers as Ruby-throated Hummingbirds came and went feeding on the beautiful flowers nectar; it was wonderful!

In late summer the brilliant scarlet of Cardinal Flower flashes from the marshes, stream banks and low woods. Called "America's favorite" and "spectacular", its extremely showy blossoms can be recognized at considerable distance. Few native plants have flowers of such intense color as this common herbaceous perennial.

The blossoms are delicate, gradually opening from bottom to top on two to four foot spikes. Five petals are united into a scarlet two-lipped corolla. The lower lip has three very prominent lobes; the upper lip has two small ones. Five stamens are joined forming a red tube around the style and are topped by bearded anthers which form a mustache-looking brush.

Beneath the flower spikes are numerous dark green leaves, tapered at both ends. A moderately tall plant, stout and erect, it is the favorite of our ruby-throated hummingbird, who obliges as a pollinator. The many seeds come in two-celled pods which open at the top.

Beautiful but deadly, the Cardinal Flower has been used as a medicine but is also very poisonous. It contains fourteen alkaloids similar to those in nicotine. Extracts of the leaves and fruit produce vomiting, sweating, pain and finally death.

The root was part of a Native American love potion and the powder of the entire plant may have been used as sort of a magic power to dispel storms and was used in ceremonies.

Native Americans used this and other Lobelias to treat worms, stomach problems and syphilis. Its use for the latter by the Cherokee and Iroquois Indians prompted testing in England in the 1770s but the results were negative.

The Cardinal Flower is a member of the Bluebell Family, Campanulaceae. It was named after the Mathias de Lobel (1538-1616) who was physician to King James I of England.

Images by D L Ennis, Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) Cardinal flower is also known as Red Lobelia.


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