How to Grow and Care for Cardinal Flower

Cardinal flower plant with bright red petals hanging closeup

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is a native plant of North, South, and Central America, normally found in moist areas such as streams, swamps, and low wooded areas. It is a clump-forming perennial with lance-shaped dark green leaves that form basal clumps and tall flower stalks that hold clusters of tubular flowers from July into early fall. The native species has scarlet red flowers, but there are also cultivars with white and rose-pink flowers. These are all excellent landscape plants for garden areas with moist soil.

Cardinal flower is normally planted from potted nursery starts in the spring, or by seeds sown in fall. It is a fairly fast-growing plant that usually flowers in its first year. Individual plants are short-lived, but cardinal flower perpetuates itself constantly by self-seeding and sending out offshoots that quickly colonize an area.

As is true of other species in the Lobelia genus, cardinal flower is seriously toxic to humans and to pets. The plant contains several toxic alkaloid compounds, including lobelamine and loeline, which can cause a variety of symptoms, ranging from digestive upset to convulsions and even death.

Common Name Cardinal flower
Botanical Name Lobelia cardinalis
Family Campanulaceae (Bellflower)
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial 
Mature Size 3-4 ft. tall; 1-2 ft. wide 
Sun Exposure Full to partial
Soil Type Moist
Soil pH Slightly acidic to neutral
Bloom Time Summer to early fall
Flower Color Red, pink, white
Hardiness Zones 2-9 (USDA)
Native Area The United States and Canada
Toxicity Toxic to humans and pets

Cardinal Flower Care

Cardinal flowers are easy to grow in any moist area that receives full or partial sunlight. Because the cardinal flower is naturally found in wet areas, keeping the soil evenly moist is key to its health. Individual plants rarely last more than a few years, but colonies can continue on for many years through offsets and self-seeding. Allowing your cardinal flowers to reseed themselves is ideal. This ensures that they will continue to come back every year, full and beautiful. Dividing your plants every two to three years will also help prolong life and create more plants.

Cardinal flower is uniquely free of common pests and diseases, but the basal foliage is sometimes targeted by snails and slugs.

Cardinal flower plant spike with bright red petals and buds closeup

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Cardinal flower plant spike with toothed, lanceolate leaves and bright red flowers

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Cardinal flower plant with toothed and laceolate leaves on spike

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Light

In colder areas, cardinal flowers appreciate full sunshine. In hotter climates, it will do best with afternoon shade to provide shelter from the intense heat.

Soil

The cardinal flower loves rich, moist-to-wet soil that often causes other plants to collapse with rot, but it struggles in dry, barren soils. To help retain soil moisture, try adding a layer of mulch around your plants. Amending soil with heavy amounts of compost can also improve soil moisture levels.

Water

This plant appreciates plenty of water. Cardinal flower can even tolerate prolonged seasonal flooding. Be sure to maintain a consistent watering schedule that keeps the soil evenly moist. Heavy twice-a-week watering may be necessary during hot months if no rain is falling.

Temperature and Humidity

Cardinal flower can routinely handle the wide range of temperatures across USDA zones 3 to 9. It is known to survive down to minus 34 degrees Fahrenheit, and some zone 2 gardeners have grown it successfully. The named cultivars and hybrids, however, may be somewhat less cold-hardy than the native species plant.

Since cardinal flowers love moisture, higher humidity levels are ideal; these plants aren't well suited for arid climates.

Fertilizer

Cardinal flowers generally do not require fertilizer throughout the year. Adding compost and organic material in the late winter or early spring will provide the necessary nutrients for the growing season ahead. This one-time application is generally sufficient for healthy growth.

Types of Cardinal Flower

In addition to the native species, Lobelia cardinalis, there are several cultivars that have been developed to expand the range of flower colors:

  • 'Queen Victoria' features the plant's trademark vivid red flowers on burgundy stems.
  • 'Black Truffle' also has crimson flowers, but very dark purple foliage that is nearly black.
  • 'Rosea' features pink flowers.
  • 'Alba' Is topped with white flowers.
  • 'Angel Song' is filled with cream- and salmon-colored flowers.

There are also a couple of hybrids to consider:

  • Lobelia x speciosa 'Vadrariensis' has dark violet flowers. It grows to 4 feet tall.
  • Lobelia x speciosa 'Star Ship Deep Rose' is a 24-inch-tall plant with deep pink flowers.

Pruning

You may want to remove spent flower spikes to keep your plant looking clean and to encourage further blooming. Just keep in mind that this may not allow the plant to self-seed, which could impact next year's colony.

If you find your plant getting a bit unruly during its growing season, feel free to trim it back to help maintain a bushier, less leggy look.

Propagating Cardinal Flowers

Cardinal flowers can be propagated by seed, division, or by transplanting young plants that develop around the mature plant. Here's how to propagate by division:

  1. In the fall, carefully dig up entire colony.
  2. Divide the root clumps into individual sections, each containing a healthy network of roots and a piece of the crown.
  3. Plant each division in the desired location. If re-establishing a colony, plant the pieces about 1 foot apart.

If you would like to remove young volunteer plants that have formed around your mature plant by self-seeding, simply dig them up in the fall and place them wherever you like.

How to Grow Cardinal Flowers From Seed

To propagate by seed, you have a couple of options. These plants easily self-seed, so you can simply leave the seed pods on the plant and allow them to fall naturally. Another option is to collect the seeds, sowing them around the plant when they are ripe If you would like to collect seeds to start indoors, here’s how:

  1. Once the seeds pods begin to open, pick them off the plant and collect the seeds. They can be replanted immediately in the garden, if you so choose, or stored in the refrigerator to plant in the spring.
  2. If you plan to start seeds indoors. give them several weeks in the refrigerator to provide the necessary cold stratification. Fill a container with moistened potting mix, sow the seeds on top of the mix, as they need light to germinate, water with a spray bottle, cover the container, and place in the refrigerator. Do not allow the seeds to dry out. Remove from refrigerator in later winter, and place in warm spot inside under lights.
  3. Place the pots in a bright location at about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, Keep the soil moist as the seedlings sprout and develop. Move the pots into direct sunlight to continue growing.
  4. When the seedlings have two sets of true leaves, pot them up into a larger container filled with potting soil.
  5. After the last threat of frost, harden off the seedlings in the garden for about 10 days.
  6. Once the seedlings have been hardened off, you can plant them in the garden.

Potting and Repotting Cardinal Flower

Cardinal flower is not a common choice for planting in pots and other containers, but it can be done. Use a large, well-draining pot filled with ordinary commercial potting mix. These moisture-loving plants will require frequent watering when grown in containers.

These are not plants that can be moved indoors to grow as houseplants for the winter. Instead, move the potted plants to a sheltered location out of the wind for the winter months.

Overwintering

In most regions, cardinal flower requires no special preparation or protection. Do not cut stalks in the fall--wait until spring.

In regions where their hardiness is borderline (zone 3), a layer of mulch over the root crowns will moderate freeze-thaw cycles over the winter and ensure the plants return the following spring. These plants can survive extremely low winter temps but frequent thaw-refreeze cycles may cause them to perish.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

The cardinal flower is a very hardy plant troubled by very few pests or diseases. The most common pests are snails and slugs, so take protective measures against them if they show up.

Fungal infections such as rust and leaf spots may arise if the plants are crowded and if airflow around them isn't good. Fungicides can usually treat the problem, but you can also simply cut the plants down to the ground and allow them to grow back fungus-free. Make sure to keep neighboring plants cut back so that the cardinal flowers have room to breathe.

Common Problems With Cardinal Flower

Like many native wildflower species, cardinal flowers are pretty fuss-free plants. The common complaints are fairly easy to address:

Yellowing Leaves

If you find that the leaves of cardinal flowers are turning yellow, it might indicate nutrient-deficient soil. A rich compost applied around the base of the plants can help.

Toppling Flower Stalks

When cardinal flower grows in shady conditions, the stalks may become overly leggy as they reach for the sun. In some cases, you may need to use stakes or hoops to support the flower stalks against the wind.

Clumps Become Sparse

Cardinal flower is a fairly short-lived plant that dies back after flowering, though a colony will continue to sustain itself by the offshoots that are created. But an older clump may spread out and become sparse. The solution is to dig up the plant, divide the crown, and replant the pieces with closer spacing.

FAQ
  • How did cardinal flowers get their name?

    The common name of this showy perennial comes from the bright scarlet robes worn by cardinals in the Catholic religion. The name is unrelated to the bright scarlet songbird of the same name. Hummingbirds, however, are very much drawn to the cardinal flower.

  • Are cardinal flowers eaten by deer and rabbits?

    In times of need, browsing animals like deer and rabbits will feed on almost any plant life, but the cardinal flower has a reputation for being fairly resistant to animal grazing.

  • How should I use this plant in the landscape?

    Cardinal flower is an excellent plant for any moist areas of the landscape and can be very helpful for stabilizing slopes that are subject to water runoff, thanks to their fibrous roots. It also has a role in the mixed border garden, though be aware that the bright scarlet red has trouble blending with other reds. Cardinal flower does work well with purple and blue flowers, however. Cardinal flowers bloom in late summer when many other perennials are spent for the season. Finally, cardinal flower is an excellent choice for butterfly and hummingbird gardens, as these pollinators are insatiably drawn to the nectar.

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. 1. Cardinal Flower. ASPCA. https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/toxic-and-non-toxic-plants/cardinal-flower‌