Nancy Brachey

Cardinal flower is an August beauty

Cardinal flower is a surprising beauty for late summer and easy to grow
Cardinal flower is a surprising beauty for late summer and easy to grow Observer file photo

I am especially fond of plants that signal a certain time of year. While not as precise as a standard calendar, they let you know that it is, for example, August. The cardinal flower does this for us, and in such a lovely way that I can’t resist telling you about it.

Cardinal flower, whose botanical name is Lobelia cardinalis, doesn’t grab much attention when people shop for their perennials in spring. That is because the plant is in a quiet state and doesn’t stand out among the brighter, blooming flowers.

But once planted correctly, it grows into a neat, vertical plant that produces lovely scarlet flowers.

This perennial has several important merits.

▪ It tolerates and damp soil that is occasionally but not always wet, such at creek sides or near downspouts. That is because it is a native of damp woodlands of the Eastern United States.

▪ It tolerates shade but benefits from sunlight that sneaks through the canopy of trees above it or at the edge of woodlands where the sun is brighter.

▪  The flowers rise as tall spikes bearing scarlet red flowers that really stand out in the green landscape. This is a real treat at a time not too many perennials are still blooming, especially in the shade. Not only is the color distinctive, but the shape is too. The spikes are unusually vertical and can rise 3 feet under good conditions of loose, damp soil.

If the soil doesn’t seem loose and rich, a shovel of compost mixed into the native earth should help create the right environment.

This perennial grows from underground rhizomes, which are a horizontal, sort of fat structure from which the roots emerge. Above ground, there’s a low, round array of leaves, with the flower spike rising at the center. This is a short-lived perennial, but a well-grown one may eventually produce more than one spike, which is something nice to look forward to, even in August.

Nancy Brachey: nbrachey@charlotteobserver.com

Ask Nancy

Q. Should I fertilize my flower beds (mostly annuals) now? I want them to keep going and look good into the fall.

A. Yes, a light application of fertilizer may be just what they need, especially if they seem a little wimpy now. As the temperature cools a bit, they should look good. Deadheading of spent flowers will also help the appearance and give them a lift.

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