Great Plants for Northern Gardens: Day 19 — Cardinal Flower


For a damp site, cardinal flower is a great choice for attracting hummingbirds.

Last summer, I was visiting a friend whose backyard garden slopes down to meet the reedy shore of a small lake. Not far from the water’s edge were large, nearly 4-foot tall bronze-green stems grouped in clusters of a half dozen or so. About two-thirds of the way up the stem brilliant scarlet blooms tipped skyward.

“If you want to grow one of the best plants for attracting hummingbirds,” he mentioned, “this is it: Lobelia cardinalis–cardinal flower”

According to most hummingbird experts, he’s correct.  L. cardinalis  is usually found in lists of essential plants for attracting hummers. And, as if to prove my friend’s point, a couple of the tiny creatures suddenly appeared on the scene and busied themselves extracting nectar from the crimson flowers while we watched from a few feet away.

A short-lived perennial that rarely endures beyond four or five years, cardinal flower readily reseeds, so if situated in the right spot in your garden it should ensure a steady supply of new plants for many years. But what’s the right spot? I’ve tried growing it a couple of times, with no success in getting it to winter over or reseed. Plant guides suggest it grows well in full sun, part sun or light shade, so that’s an easy requirement for most gardens to fulfill. It also prefers fertile, slightly acidic soil, so no big deal there. But they also say it requires moist soil, so as I stood in my friend’s garden and looked at his stands of cardinal flower with the backdrop of the marshy lake behind them, it dawned on me why his were thriving while I had no luck with them; my sandy loam soil was simply too dry to easily grow this plant, even with extra irrigation. In fact, most guides suggest they do best in a bog or pond site.

So while it may not work for me in my home garden, in this land of 10,000 lakes (and even more ponds) cardinal flower is one of the great plants for northern gardens — at least some northern gardens. If you have the right site, you will be  rewarded by its dramatically colored flowers that bloom from summer into fall, and its qualities as an outstanding hummingbird magnet.

—Tom McKusick

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