Wednesday, September 18, 2013

August 2013 Plant of the Month - Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis

Every year in August, one of the most beautiful species of  native plants in South Jersey come alive, Lobelia cardinalis or the Cardinal Flower. The first time I saw a Cardinal Flower, I did a double take. I was riding up Rt 322 in Weymouth on my motorcycle, when I neared the Egg Harbor river, and a brilliant red color caught my eye. I had to pull over, back up and investigate. There it was, a tall, bright red spike that was absolutely stunning, growing right on the bank of the river. I had never seen such a plant, but I had to know more. At that time we didn't have internet so I went to a bookstore and looked through flower books until I found it. Its name seemed perfect since it is bright red like a male cardinal. The following year I was camping along that same river and found one growing at my campsite half in the water. A hummingbird was feeding from it. Over the years, I saw them more, always along streamsides and always with a hummingbird, nearby. I knew this would be a great way to attract them to the yard. When I decided to start propagating native plants, I couldn't wait to start this one. But finding them was not all that common and getting seeds was even more tricky. Eventually I timed it right, found I good a seed pod and got to sowing. I have been raising them for six years now. 

Over the past six years I have learned quite a bit about them. Hummingbirds love them of course, but so do many species of butterflies and other pollinators. The do best in a sunny, moist location, but will tolerate partial shade. They will not tolerate drought. They are known as a short-lived perennial, that is , they only live about three years. But with seed saving you can continue raising them for many years. The first year, most plants will produce a basal rosette, a small clump of leaves, but no stalk. There are always some who break the rules, but generally speaking they do not bloom the first year. The second year they will and it's then that the look their best. The third year they will bloom, and most likely not come back after that. However they may self sow if conditions are ideal in your garden. I have had many clients comment on this, so I always recommend sowing seeds that last year. Otherwise you may need to re-purchase one to take its place.

If you choose to propagate, pick the pod when it starts to dry. The seeds are very tiny, like dust. In the fall, spread them evenly on a surface that will stay moist over winter and protect them with leaves to keep the from blowing away. Alternatively you may choose to propagate indoors. If you door, you will need to provide cold, moist stratification for 8-12 weeks in the refrigerator. Outdoor fall sowing eliminates the need for this step. Look for seedlings when temperatures being to rise and the soil no longer freezes. They will be very, very tiny. They grow very slowly. Be patient. When they have two to three sets of true leaves, gently lift them and transplant to individual containers, where they can continue growing.   If you want to raise them from seed, I recommend buying a plant and then saving the seed from it. That way you won't have to guess as to finding a plant at harvest time. You will have one and know when it is ready.

Cardinal flower is perfect for the Hummingbird Garden, Bog Garden, and Ponds. My favorite companion plants are Sneezeweed and Great Blue Lobelia. The three of these blooming together put on quite a show. The Sneezeweed is usually found growing with it in the marsh plant community. As long as you can provide the proper conditions of semi-sun and ample moisture,  this plant should do well and provide several weeks of color in your garden.

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