Species of the week: Cardinal flower
Species: Cardinal flower
Scientific name: Lobelia cardinalis
Claim to fame: The cardinal flower is known for its vibrant color and its late-blooming period. It shows off its bright red blooms around streams and wetland areas until October. It’s also becoming popular with people who like to plant native wildflowers around their home. In addition to the aesthetic value it provides for outdoors enthusiasts and gardeners, the plant’s late-blooming quality makes it a valuable food source for migrating hummingbirds.
Species status: The cardinal flower is found throughout southwest Missouri.
First discovered: It was believed cardinal flower was first documented by French explorers, who sent samples of the plant back to France in the early 17th century. Cardinal flower soon became popular as an ornamental flower throughout much of Europe. It was named for the royal red miters worn by the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. The first taxonomic description of the plant was written by the famed naturalist Carl Linnaeus.
Family matters: Cardinal flower belongs to the plant family Campanulaceae, a group of species commonly referred to as the bellflower family.
Height: The leafy stems of the plant can grow up to four feet in height.
Flowers: The bright crimson flowers are alternately arranged on individual stalks along a dense spike at the top of the plant. Each flower is approximately one-and-a-half inches long with two lips; the upper lip is has two small lobes and the lower lip has three lobes.
Seeds/fruits: Seed capsules form on the stalk, each capsule containing a large number of tiny brown seeds.
Distinguishing characteristics: In addition to its tubular red flowers, which are its most obvious characteristic, a cardinal flower has a leafy stem, usually unbranched that contains milky sap. The stem’s leaves are alternate, stalkless and usually less than two inches in length.
Annual/biennial/perennial: The cardinal flower is a perennial.
Habitat: The cardinal flower is found along muddy or gravelly borders of streams, spring branches, low and wet woodland areas, and along the edges of prairie streams.
Life cycle: As stated above, hummingbirds play a major role in the propagation of cardinal flowers. The plant has done its part by evolving to a form that’s basically built for the tiny birds. The plant’s bright red flowers attract hummingbirds (which, as feeders of hummingbirds know, are drawn to anything red). The long, tube-like shape of the flowers makes it difficult for most insects to access the nectar inside, but ideal for hummingbirds which have long beaks and even longer tongues. The cardinal flower develops seed pods in early to mid-autumn. The pods dry, crack, and eventually fall from the plant. It’s presumed wind and rainwater run-off are the primary agents of seed dispersal.