Exploring The Last Green Valley – The Beautiful Cardinal Flower

The Beautiful Cardinal Flower

Whence is yonder flower so strangely bright?
Would the sunset’s last reflected shine
Flame so red from that dead flush of light?
Dark with passion is its lifted line,

Hot, alive, amid the falling night.

Cardinal Flower, by Dora Read Goodale, Berkshire with the Wildflowers.

About ten years ago a friend first showed me the beautiful cardinal flower. We were paddling on the French River in Oxford when she pointed out several large plants growing beside the river’s edge. We nosed our kayaks onto the bank, snapped pictures and marveled at the brilliant scarlet red blooms.

Since that first encounter I have discovered cardinal flowers growing beside rivers and in wetlands throughout The Last Green Valley. I always look for them in mid-summer when paddling or hiking. They are hard to miss with their long stems topped with crimson bright red blossoms that literally shimmer in the daylight.

I had only seen cardinal flowers growing near water bodies and therefore assumed the plant required “wet feet” and constant moisture. I was surprised when a TLGV member told me she had a large patch of cardinal flowers in her front yard garden. She invited me to see for myself and the other day I ventured over to her house. I discovered by far the largest planting of cardinal flower I have ever seen and spoke with her at length about her experience with the plant.

She has been propagating and growing native wildflowers for 30 years, and is a member of the Killingly Conservation Commission and Mother Nature’s Garden. Several years ago she found a clump of cardinal flowers growing next to a small stream on her property. In the spring she divided out several rosettes that had formed along the base of the plant and transplanted them to the garden near her house. She picked a spot along an old stone wall in partial shade, planted it with a thick cover of composted mulch and watered it diligently. Years later her initial patch now includes almost 100 stems – a veritable cardinal flower garden!

Each spring she divides out a few rosettes and transplants them to expand the size of her cardinal flower garden. She has also planted them in other parts of her front yard garden as well.

The cardinal flower is indigenous to America, and about thirty different species grow here. Early French explorers found the plant so captivating that they sent it back to France as an elegant sample of the New World. With blossoms suggesting the rich, red robes of the Catholic cardinals, perhaps it was then that the plant received its name.

Standing stiffly erect and unbranched, the stem is well supplied with alternating leaves. The blossoms are borne in clusters at the stem tips. The tube-shaped flowers have two lips the upper having two lobes and the lower having three lobes. Since the flower tube is fairly long and the lower lip so fragile, many insects cannot land on the plant to reach the nectar. Thus, pollination is accomplished chiefly by hummingbirds. The hummingbirds do not need to alight, and their long tongues are adapted for easily reaching the nectar deep within the flower. After pollination a pod with many seeds is formed.

Walking the Wetlands: A Hiker’s Guide to Common Plants and Animals of Marshes, Bogs and Swamps  by Janet Lyons and Sandra Jordan.

The cardinal flower is usually 2-3 feet in length but can grow up to 4 feet and typically blooms from July until September. As TLGV’s member can attest, they are easily grown in rich, humus soil that is medium to wet and in full sun to partial shade. They need constant moisture and composted mulch is very important for successful propagation of the plant.

The best way to expand the number of cardinal flowers in your garden is to divide out rosettes that form at the base of the plant and transplant them in spring. They do produce seeds and may also self-seed in optimum growing conditions. Plants started from seed will take a few years before they flower and plants started by rosettes will bloom within the first year.

We live in a region full of remarkable flora and fauna. The cardinal flower is yet another example of the startling beauty to be found along our streams and wetlands as well as in our own backyard. I hope you’ll join me to appreciate all we have here in The Last Green Valley, to enjoy, care for, and pass it on.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the preceding article.  The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.