General: Bellflower Family (Campanulaceae). This herbaceous perennial is 5 to 15 cm. tall with unbranched stems. The alternate leaves are toothed and oblong to lance-shaped and pointed at both ends. The irregular, two-lipped flowers are tubular with the upper portion two-lobed and the lower spreading and divided into three parts. The fire engine red flowers appear in long terminal racemes and they are from 30-45 mm. The anthers are at the end of a slender red filament tube extending out over the lower lip of the corolla. The corolla has a slit on each side near the base. The seeds come in a two-celled, many-seeded capsules opening at the top. They are small, less than 1 mm. and numerous.
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Regularity: Regularly occurring
This plant is found in wet soil from New Brunswick to Minnesota, south to the Gulf of Mexico. For current distribution, please consult the Plant Profile page for this species on the PLANTS Web site.
Catalog Number: US 2133285
Collection: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany
Preparation: Pressed specimen
Collector(s): C. H. Muller
Year Collected: 1939
Locality: 12 mi NE of Bella Vista., Madera, Chihuahua, Mexico, North America
- Holotype: Woodson, R. E. & Schery, R. W. 1940. Ann. Missouri Bot. Gard. 27: 348.
Adaptation: Cardinal flower is comparatively easy to grow. The capsules can be collected in autumn, usually October. The stalks are cut below the capsules, and placed upside down in a per sack. Once, home, the bag is opened so that the capsules are exposed to the air for a few days. Shake the bag to release the seeds. Crushing the capsules with a rolling pin and picking out the seeds from the litter can retrieve the capsules that have remaining seeds. The seeds can then be planted right away.
Propagation by seeds: The seeds will germinate without cold stratification, but they need light, so sow the seeds in a flat with a damp fine grade peat light mix. Keep the flats moist and under lights or in a greenhouse. They should green up in a few weeks. Transplant them in 4-6 weeks into individual pots such as 70 cell plug trays, use the same potting mix and keep fertilizing. The seedlings are tiny at first, so fertilize them every other week with a liquid fertilizer. After another 4 weeks they can be put out in the garden or transplanted into larger pots of 4 to 6 inch diameter. Plant the plants in an outdoor spot that is in full sun or very light shade and never dries completely. Space the plants 8 to 12 inches apart. Add plenty of peat moss when planting and mulch well to keep the soil cool and moist. Protect the plants from deer. Cardinal flower will take two years to bloom, forming a large rosette the first year. Allow the plants to self-sow. They are heavy feeders, so compost or a shot of granular fertilizer when they begin growth is recommended.
Propagation by cuttings: Take two node stem cuttings (4-6 inches) before the flowers open and remove the lower leaf and half the upper leaf. Treat the cutting with hormodin 2 or roottone and place the cuttings in a sand and perlite medium, cover lightly, water, and remember to keep the medium moist. Roots will form in 2-3 weeks, but the cuttings need to force a good new crown from the lower node to successfully over-winter.
Flower-Visiting Insects & Birds of Cardinal Flower in Illinois
(Short-tongued bees collect pollen & are non-pollinating; bumblebees perforate the flowers, steal nectar through these perforations [sn@prf], & are non-pollinating; other visitors suck nectar; observations are from Robertson, Graenicher, and Bertin)
Trochilidae: Archilochus colubris sn fq (Rb, Gr, Brt)
Apidae (Bombini): Bombus pensylvanica prf sn@prf fq np (Rb)
Halictidae (Halictinae): Augochlorella striata cp np (Rb), Lasioglossum versatus cp np (Rb)
Papilionidae: Battus philenor sn (Rb), Papilio polyxenes asterias sn (Rb), Papilio troilus sn (Rb)
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Lobelia cardinalis
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Lobelia cardinalis
Public Records: 6
Specimens with Barcodes: 9
Species With Barcodes: 1
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Lobelia cardinalis L.
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 2
Species With Barcodes: 1
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: NNR - Unranked
Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure
Please consult the PLANTS Web site and your State Department of Natural Resources for this plant’s current status, such as, state noxious status and wetland indicator values.
Cultivars, improved and selected materials (and area of origin)
Contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly Soil Conservation Service) office for more information. Look in the phone book under ”United States Government.” The Natural Resources Conservation Service will be listed under the subheading “Department of Agriculture.” Seeds and plants of selected Lobelia cardinalis cultivars are available from many nurseries. It is best to plant species from your local area, adapted to the specific site conditions where the plants are to be grown.
When well established, clumps of this plant can be divided in the fall or spring by separating the rosettes or basal offshoots from the mother plant and replanting these divisions and watering them immediately. In the winter, keep the leafy offshoots at the base of the drying stems of old plants free of leaf litter to allow them full exposure to the air and sunshine.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Ethnobotanic: The Iroquois had many medicinal uses for cardinal flower. The root was boiled together with the root of Cichorium intybus and the liquid was used to treat fever sores. The mashed roots, stems, leaves, and blossoms were made into a decoction and drank for cramps. The plant was also used as an emetic for an upset stomach from eating something bad. The plant was added to other medicines to give them more strength. The Delaware used an infusion of the roots to treat typhoid. The Meskwaki used this plant as a ceremonial tobacco, throwing it to the winds to ward off a storm. The Pawnee used the roots and flowers of cardinal flower in the composition of a love charm.
Wildlife: Hummingbirds are attracted to the nectar. Deer browsing often damages young plants.
Lobelia cardinalis (syn. L. fulgens, cardinal flower) is a species of Lobelia native to the Americas, from southeastern Canada south through the eastern and southwestern United States, Mexico and Central America to northern Colombia.
It is a perennial herbaceous plant that grows up to 1.2 m (4 ft) tall and is found in wet places, streambanks, and swamps. The leaves are up to 20 cm (8 in) long and 5 cm (2 in) broad, lanceolate to oval, with a toothed margin. The flowers are usually vibrant red, deeply five-lobed, up to 4 cm across; they are produced in an erect raceme up to 70 cm (28 in) tall during the summer to fall. Forms with white (f. alba) and pink (f. rosea) flowers are also known.
Lobelia cardinalis is related to two other Lobelia species in to the Eastern United States, Lobelia inflata (Indian tobacco) and Lobelia siphilitica (great lobelia); all display the characteristic "lip" petal near the opening of the flower and the "milky" liquid the plant excretes. L. siphilitica has blue flowers and is pollinated by bees, whereas L. cardinalis is red and is pollinated by the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris).
This plant is easily propagated by seed and dividing out the young plants which form around the older mature plants each year. Although the plant is generally considered a perennial, they may be short lived. They prefer moist soils in part shade.
Medicinal and other uses
North American indigenous peoples used root tea for a number of intestinal ailments and syphilis. Leaf teas were used by them for bronchial problems and colds, inter alia. The Meskwaki people used it as part of an inhalant against catarrh. The Penobscot people smoked the dried leaves as a substitute for tobacco. It may also have been chewed. The plant contains a number of alkaloids. As a member of the genus Lobelia, it is considered to be potentially toxic. Lobelia may have potential as a drug for, or in study of, neurological disorders. The Zuni people use this plant as an ingredient of "schumaakwe cakes" and used it externally for rheumatism and swelling. 
- Germplasm Resources Information Network: Lobelia cardinalis
- Missouriplants: Lobelia cardinalis
- Caruso, C. M.; Peterson, S. B.; Ridley, C. E. (2003), Natural selection on floral traits of Lobelia (Lobeliaceae): spatial and temporal variation, American Journal of Botany 90 (9): 1333–40, doi:10.3732/ajb.90.9.1333, PMID 21659233
- Donaldson, C. (1999). Cardinal Flower – Spectacular Scarlet Blossoms That Hummingbirds Adore. Plants & Gardens News 14 (3). online at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Accessed 23 May 2006.
- "RHS Plant Selector - Lobelia cardinalis". Retrieved 22 May 2013.
- Frances Tenenbaum (2003). Taylor's Encyclopedia of Garden Plants. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 244–. ISBN 0-618-22644-3.
- Guédon, Marie-Françoise. Sacred Smudging in North America, Walkabout Press 2000
- Foster, Steven and James A. Duke. Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants. Peterson Field Guides, Houghton, Mifflin 1990 edn. ISBN 0-395-92066-3
- Felpin F.-X., Lebreton J. , "History, chemistry and biology of alkaloids from Lobelia inflata" Tetrahedron 2004 60:45 (10127-10153)
- Stevenson, Matilda Coxe 1915 Ethnobotany of the Zuni Indians. SI-BAE Annual Report #30 (p. 56)
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Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Several subspecies or varieties sometimes recognized (e.g., Kartesz, 1994 checklist); in Kartesz 1999 floristic synthesis, no infrataxa recognized at all in this widespread, variable species. LEM 9Feb00.
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