Cardinal Flowers: A Site of Bliss     7 September, 2006, 09:20 pm
I took my annual walk around the farm in search of cardinal flowers, Lobelia cardinalis, on August 19. As I began my preparations, my husband and walking companion of more than twenty-two years expressed an interest in joining me. I told him that we'd have to leave the beaten path and that we'd most likely get hot and sweaty and full of ticks, but that it would most likely be worth it in the end. So we suited up with long pants, tucked into white socks, wearing our hats and farm shoes and yucky bug spray.


With binoculars and camera in hand, we started our quest along the creek bank below Larks Cottage, a place where we've often spotted cardinal flowers. But the creek is low this year, having had very little rain in the past three weeks, and at first we saw none, then spied a single beauty, about three feet tall with alternate, oblong leaves and one-inch flowers blooming up the stalk.


We continued to follow Rockcastle Creek along the lower pasture, where we rarely see cardinal flowers but sometimes find arrowheads (Sagittaria latifolia) growing from cut-outs along the bank and did find a great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilityica), the cardinal flower's blue counterpart. We also saw masses of tall ironweed (Veronia altissima), orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), and several species of Eupatorium, including white boneset and purple Joe-Pye weed.


Moving into the densely wooded area below the Hidden Field, we found the ground surprisingly dry for what we usually consider a marsh. In past years I've found thick-stalked cardinal flowers more than four feet high, but this year there were none. Although we doubted we'd find any, we resolved to complete our pilgrimage by checking the swamp on the high road near Hickory Corners. After crossing the creek and climbing the wooded hill to the high road, we looked through the binoculars but saw no cardinal flowers. I was hot and sweaty and tempted to end my search, but not wanting to be "ye of little faith," shouted, "I'm going in," and carefully made my way through the briars and brambles. Turning a bend in the cedars, my heart did leap as I spotted a stand of cardinal flowers. Ron joined me, and we counted more than forty blooming stalks about two feet tall.


When I knelt down to get a close look and take a photo, I paid the final price for viewing such beauty as dozens of tiny seed ticks swarmed up my arm. I brushed off what I could and put them out of mind for the moment. I studied the flowers, which have five petals that form an upper lip with two lobes and lower lip with three. The stamens form a tube at the bottom of which is a pool of nectar. The pistil and stamen project from the mouth of the tube in such a way as to tap the head of pollinating visitors, chiefly hummingbirds, since most insects find it hard to navigate the long tubular flowers.


I have read that lobelias are "proterandrous" flowers; the male pollen-bearing stamens develop first, then the female, pollen-receiving pistil. This sex change prevents self-fertilization and occurs form the bottom up on the stalk. Hummingbirds visit the male flowers first, returning later to the female flower with pollen from another later flower. This transformation from one sex to another can be found throughout the natural world.


Lobelias were named for Matthias de Lobel or l'Obel (1538-1616), a Flemish botanist and writer. Cardinalis refers to the bright red color of the robes of Roman Catholic Cardinals. (For more on cardinalis, see my blog, "A Cardinal Idea.") Some other common names for Lobelia cardinalis are: highbelia, hog-physic, or slinkweed in Massachusetts and redbelia or red-betty in Vermont. In the Victorian language of flowers, cardinal flower means distinction, a reference to the flower's distinct color.


Cardinal flowers are native to North America and have inspired several American writers. Oliver Wendel Holmes described it reflected in water as "drops of scarlet rain." John Burrroughs described it as "a heart-throb of color on the bosom of the dark solitude." Henry David Thoreau recorded cardinal flowers at least five times in his journals, in August 1851 through 1858. On August 27, 1856, he described the most splendid show of cardinal flowers he ever saw, counting four or five thousand at least. On August 6, 1852, he wrote, "I love to follow up the course of the brook and see the cardinal-flowers which stand in its midst above the rocks, their brilliant scarlet the more interesting in this open, but dark, cellar-like wood... Many flowers, of course, like the last are prominent, if you visit such scenes as this, though one who confines himself to the road may never see them."


Poets are always reminding us of the roads we take or don't take as the case may be. Thoreau was right about cardinal flowers; you usually can't see them from the road. It's worth it to leave the security of the established path and to move outside one's comfort zone from time to time. There's unseen beauty to be had; a site of bliss to be established.


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