Cardinal flowers stand like matches in the seeping rills of early September, their feet in the cool water and their heads burning hot red against the flagging greens of summer’s retreat. The color is so intense that even “cardinal” seems a pale adjective for the flower.
While increasingly rare in the wild, this brilliant native plant becomes the center of attention in whatever favored landscape it arises — especially for hummingbirds.
Folklore has it that cardinal flowers have the ability to pull hummingbirds right out of the sky. Their crimson calling card and rich nectar reward for passing hummers make that assertion nearly true.
A member of the bellflower family, cardinal flowers thrive in muck or even in standing water, shooting up a meter or more on spikes (racemes) that are topped by scarlet fireworks. The florets have long tubular necks that most insects cannot penetrate, so the plant is heavily dependent on the long lickety-lapping tongues (13 laps per second) of hummingbirds for pollination.
The plant’s native range stretches from Canada’s southern provinces to Florida and Texas, and across the plains and mountains to California. Its blooming periods from north to south correspond conveniently with the annual migration of hummingbirds.
Taking a closer look at the cardinal flower usually entails getting your feet wet, but it is worth it. Nearly lost in the intense, glowing red of the blossom are the tiny male, pollen-producing anthers. They are a beautiful sky blue with shaggy white beards. The spectacle is enough to make you forget your soggy sneakers and frozen feet.
The cardinal flower is an authentic American native. It has long been a favorite for American naturalists. In the 19th Century John Burroughs wondered rhetorically “what can surpass our cardinal flower?” And one of his contemporaries, Emily Dickinson, the Belle of Amherst, left this wonderful autobiographical prose fragment on a scrap of paper to be found many years later among her effects:
“Two things I have lost with Childhood — the rapture of losing my shoe in the Mud and going Home barefoot, wading for cardinal flowers and the mothers reproof which was more for my sake than her weary own for she frowned with a smile — now Mother and Cardinal flowers are parts of a closed world — But is that all I have lost — memory drapes her lips.”
Everyone seems to remember autumn in New England — whether they’ve been here or not. We may be the proprietors of that collective memory, but we don’t really own it. It’s too big, too public.
But the memory of the little red match that ignites autumn’s famous fire is a more intimate keepsake from a closed world. And all it costs us is cold, wet feet.