Life

Cardinal flower hard to miss

 David Hawke

With blossoms appearing in the same red hue as a popular cola can, cardinal flower is impossible to miss. When appearing in wet ditches and along rocky stream banks, its arrival marks the end of summer. (DAVID HAWKE/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES)

With blossoms appearing in the same red hue as a popular cola can, cardinal flower is impossible to miss. When appearing in wet ditches and along rocky stream banks, its arrival marks the end of summer. (DAVID HAWKE/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES)

Wait, what? Did you say it's September? What happened to August? What happened to summer? Good thing I'm not a wild creature that has to prepare for migration, as I might not get my fat layer on in time. Come to think of it, over the past few weeks, there have been small flocks of birds gathering for migration — the shorebirds and swallows, for example. And the fall wildflowers are blooming right on time, so I guess I've been distracted with other things.

Late in a summer 175 years ago (that would be 1842 for those of you who prefer your data straight up), a chap named Nathaniel Hawthorne jotted down a few words in his diary: "I have noticed the scarlet stalks of cardinal flower, the gorgeous scarlet which is a joy even to remember. The world is made sunnier and brighter by flowers of such hue. Even perfume, which is the soul and spirit of a flower, may be spared when it arrays itself with this scarlet glory. It is a flower of thought and feeling, it seems to have its roots deep down in the hearts of those who gaze at it."

Ol' Nate sure had a way with words, didn't he? When he wrote his romantically sordid tale, The Scarlet Letter, I wonder if cardinal flower was somewhere in his thoughts.

The first time I noticed cardinal flower was on Manitoulin Island, a cluster of stems seen growing in a roadside ditch. At the time, we were on a motorcycle tour of Georgian Bay, and even as we whizzed along the highway, the brilliant blooms had no trouble catching our attention. We immediately turned around and went back to the soggy ditch to better inspect these flowers that had been so flauntingly displayed.

Looking back, I wonder what thoughts were in the minds of passing motorists as they saw two leather-clad bikers sitting on the gravel roadside, contemplating pretty wildflowers.

Preferring to keep their roots wet, the red flowers grow in profusion along shores, stream banks and ancient beaver dams. The crimson blossoms, held atop a stem that may be up to a metre tall, are unmistakable and impossible to miss. Perhaps only water lilies are more easily identified than cardinal flower.

Several blossoms decorate the showy spike, being produced steadily throughout the latter part of summer. Interestingly, the flower first appears as a 'male,' sporting yellow pollen at the end of the tube that projects above the flower. Later, in the 'female' stage, this tip has a tiny Y-shaped projection, a place to gather pollen from other male blooms.

The most common vector for pollen transfer between cardinal flowers is the same that services columbine and jewelweed — the ruby-throated hummingbird. As the hummer visits the blooms, picking up nectar to fuel its fall migration, pollen from the flower's male tips adheres to the bird's forehead. When the tiny bird then flits to the next blossom, which is hopefully in the female stage, the pollen is transferred.

Cardinal flower has been noted in history for a long time, being used medicinally to treat intestinal worms, syphilis and “lonely hearts.” There is some doubt in these modern days as to the effectiveness of this plant, but folklore maintains it figured prominently as a useful herb.

In scientific lingo, it is called Lobelia cardinalis. The first part is in honour of Flemish botanist Matthias de l'Obel. The second part of the name is for the colour of the robes worn by Roman Catholic cardinals, for it was these men who were the power players in the 1600s.

Seeds collected in North America grew well when planted in gardens back in France. It became a treasured species in the flower gardens of the rich and powerful leaders of the day. By 1620, it was well known as cardinal flower on both sides of the Atlantic.

A bittersweet memory of mine is of the time I tried to transplant a few rescued flowers from a construction site to the stream bank by my home. As I stood in the mud, one hand deftly manoeuvring the shovel, the other holding the already wilting plant, a familiar droning buzz was heard close by.

Looking up, I saw a male hummingbird inspecting the blossoms of the dying plant, hovering inches from my face. Even the laser-red throat patch of the hummer seemed to pale beside the scarlet blooms.

As Mr. Hawthorne also wrote, "It is a flower of thought and feeling; it has its roots deep in the hearts of those who gaze at it." May we all share this sentiment and come to appreciate the value of our wild environment.

David Hawke is a columnist for the Packet & Times. He can be contacted at david.hawke55@gmail.com.



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