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Cardinal flower brightens late-summer gardens

By Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey writes about gardening for The Charlotte Observer's weekly Home & Garden section.

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  • Ask Nancy

    Q. Our crape myrtle tree is about 12 feet tall and was planted in January, 2012. Last summer it flowered, but with sparse, pale lilac blooms. This year it hasn’t flowered at all and is now shedding bark and there are a few leaves turning yellow. It is planted facing east and gets about eight hours of sun a day. Does it need a supplement for the soil or is it just bad luck?

    The shedding bark is normal on a crape myrtle and is actually considered one of its assets. Crape myrtles bloom on new growth that emerges in spring. Since you have not done any pruning this summer, that is not the root of the problem. It seems to me that, in just its second growing season, the tree is putting all its energy into growing roots and stems at the expense of flowers. I suggest a slow-release, organic fertilizer such as Plant-Tone early next spring, just as the plant begins to grow.

One of my favorite perennials for August has had some difficult times during the hot, dry summers of the past decade.

But not this year. The cardinal flower, named descriptively for its vivid red blooms, likes water. Good thing.

This perennial, rather unsung in the world of perennial flower gardening, blooms in late summer, sending up small red blooms arrayed gracefully along a tall spike. A native plant of the Eastern U.S., its botanical name is Lobelia cardinalis and it is just the thing for a semi-shady spot that stays damp, even wet at times.

Cardinal flower can be quite dramatic, the spikes rising about 3 to 4 feet. And the bright red blooms, popular with hummingbirds, can really stand out. This is particularly so when the plant grows in the semi-shade among a lot of green things, such as hardy ferns and hostas. The contrast is very nice because, surrounded in green, the red looks even more intense and very pretty.

This plant also looks very good beside a fish pond, placed close to the edge so that it seems to be part of the scene and perhaps even make a lovely reflection. Its tall, skinny shape and vivid flowers are a good contrast to the short, rounded and pastel or white flowers gardeners often choose for their semi-shaded gardens.

This perennial grows from underground rhizomes, which are a horizontal, sort of fat structure from which the roots emerge. A simple, flat round array of leaves grows at ground level, and the flower spike rises from the center. Over time, this can expand to form a nice clump that may bear more than a single stalk of flowers. But that will take time. Until then, enjoy a single spike.

One of the nice things about cardinal flower is that, in the right environment, the seeds produced by the flower will fall on the ground and produce new plants. It does not, however, become weedy. And it does take the right environment of moist, good soil for the seeds to germinate and make new plants. We have not had a very good environment for this in summers of recent memory (really hot, really dry).

But maybe this year.

While most people think of cardinal flower as just red, there are some varieties in other colors such as white or pink. Even so, the red is best.

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