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Flora Fact: Crimson Beauty

Brightly colored cardinal flowers attract hummingbirds.

By Dyanne Fry Cortez



A cardinal flower in bloom is a sight to see. It stands up to 4 feet tall, topped by a column of vivid red flowers. Buds at the bottom open first. The flower stalk lengthens as the bloom progresses upward, eventually adding as much as 18 inches to the height of the plant.

Viewed at close range, an individual flower is 1 to 2 inches long. Five petals form a two-lipped tube: where it divides, three petals fold down like a ruffled petticoat while the other two point off in opposite directions. The flower has five stamens, also fused into a tube that extends beyond the petals. The stems or filaments of the stamens are also bright red, with gray pollen-bearing anthers at the tip


Hummingbirds are the primary pollinators of cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis). It takes a long, thin snout to extract nectar from these flowers.

Cardinal flower is a wetland plant, found in marshes and low-lying meadows. It also lives in riparian zones, growing in a streambed or just at the water’s edge. The plant’s native range covers most of the United States and parts of southeastern Canada. Given a damp spot with good sunlight, it will grow in most regions of Texas. Still, it’s nowhere near as common as bluebonnets in spring.

cardinal

In his travels as a conservation biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Tom Heger recalls just a few sightings of cardinal flower. He found one at the edge of a floodplain wetland in East Texas, another on a gravel bed in the upper Guadalupe River. Other staff members who survey rivers and watersheds have spotted one or two along the Llano River.

Wetlands are fragile environments, and cardinal flower is listed as a threatened species in at least one state. However, it isn’t considered rare or threatened in Texas. If people don’t see it often, that could be because it isn’t conspicuous until it blooms.

For most of the year, L. cardinalis is a tall, thin stem with long, narrow, pointed leaves. The stem is usually unbranched. A typical leaf is 3 to 5 inches long with fine teeth along the edges. The plant produces viable seed, but can also reproduce by sending offshoots at ground level. It may form colonies along stream beds, but until the flowers appear, it looks like “just another plant,” says Heger.

Wildflower watchers should look for those bright red displays between July and October, or get seeds from a reputable supplier and plant some cardinal flowers in a garden. They’ll grow in full sun or partial shade, as long as they can keep their feet wet.

 

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