Tuesday, August 14, 2012
"We go out of our way to touch at a spring run in the edge of the woods, and we are lucky to find a single scarlet lobelia lingering there." These words written by John Burroughs more than a century ago accurately describe our current search for this native treasure in the wild. Only once have we happened across a wild stand of cardinal flower. Why this plant that produces seed so freely and forms daughter plants by basal division is so rare in nature is a puzzle.
A flowering plant with a single stalk will form six new plants at its base before winter. Only the daughter plants return the following season. A single plant sports a dense tangle of white roots. The sheer abundance of the root mass of the six daughter plants may be the fatal flaw of this plant. All six new plants sometimes survive to flower the following year but then each of them try to create six additional new plants. Thirty-six plants growing in a space the size of a coffee cup simply cannot survive. Our intervention occurs each spring. Then we pull apart the tangled root mass and replant single plants. Some are potted up to allow for basement protection from spring freezes. Others are left in the garden to face the perils of late freezes or frosts. The tender green crowns are sometimes changed to gray mush by a frost.
Plantsmen have crossed the native scarlet lobelia with a Mexican cousin. A purple stemmed tender plant is the result of that intervention. Mass sales of potted plants was likely their goal. Last year these variants occurred spontaneously in our garden. Winter hardiness was our first concern. The off colored plants made it through winter with no help from us and have flowered. The contrast of the deep clear red flowers and the light bright green natural foliage creates a more pleasing presentation. We have trouble discarding viable plants but these may be on their way out. We want our wild strain to remain pure.
Few flowers can compare with the brilliant clarity of cardinal flower. As the season moves forward, new flowers appear higher on the stalk. Spent flowers forming seed capsules are not a visual treat so one must look above them to see the newly opened flowers. This year's show is nearly over as these blossoms are near the tip if the spike. The show has been wonderful and it will soon be time to intervene again to help this native treasure find another new season.