“The contours and colors of words are inseparable from the feelings we create in relation to situations, to others, and to places.” — Robert MacFarlane
Cardinal rules on the prairie in early August… that is, cardinal flower rules. Suddenly, she mysteriously appears in the wetlands. Pops up beside the ponds. Strikes scarlet poses throughout the wet prairie.
Her spiky raceme of racy red is unmistakable.
Swallowtail butterflies like her. The hummingbirds approve. In my backyard prairie patch and pond they hover, drawn to that screaming scarlet. Come closer, the red flowers seem to entice the hummers. Wait until you see how sweet we taste.
Read the field guide descriptions. Showy. There’s talk about her corollas, those lips! Juicy. Moist-loving. Look again. You can’t not think of a tube of bright red lipstick; maybe a mid-life crisis sports car. This is a sensual flower, make no mistake about it.
Read on. This plant is “temperamental.” Her ecological value to wildlife is categorized as low. But really, who would expect something so ravishing to be useful as well as beautiful?
Although… some Native American tribes found cardinal flower roots and flowers important in the making of love charms. The ground-up roots were slipped into food to end arguments and as an anti-divorce remedy. Fitting, perhaps, for a flower so striking, to have these supposed powers.
The prairie is not prodigious with its reds. Sure, there is a little royal catchfly sprinkled around. But not a whole lot else that’s scarlet. Purples?
Oh my, everywhere from spring to fall. White — plenty of it. Yellows?
The prairie seems to always have something yellow going on. Blue has a voice in August.
Even pink with a little orange thrown in for good measure.
But red… now, that’s special.
In my backyard, the cardinal flower is elusive. Some years it blooms. Others, it disappears and I wonder. Is it gone for good? This August, just as I gave up, a few bright spots appeared around the pond. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Because what would August be in the wet prairie without those splashes of scarlet?
The opening quote is from Robert MacFarlane’s (1976-) Landmarks, a book that explores the critical importance of naming the natural world. Read a review of Landmarks here.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadow Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) , Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis,) Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL: blue vervain (Verbena hastata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; woodland sunflower (Helianthus divarcatus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; bee and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) with viceroy butterfly (Limenitus archippus) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL.
Special thanks to John and Lisa Marie Ayres for permission to photograph Nomia Meadows Farm and its restored prairies and wetlands. If you haven’t stayed at their Bed and Breakfast, please take a look: Lincoln Way Inn Bed & Breakfast, Franklin Grove, IL. The most beautiful B&B I’ve ever stayed in; some lovely prairie-themed rooms.
Factual information and some good reading about the cardinal flower came from here: Illinois Wildflowers.
Ethnobotanical information on the cardinal flower is from page 312 of Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman (Timber Press). Fabulous book! Check it out.