Plant of the Week: Cardinal Flower

The High Line's planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 300 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line's rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today. This week we share one of our gardeners' current favorites with you.

Surrounded by the cooler color palette of the Diller – von Furstenberg Sundeck and bog, the bright flowers of the Lobelia cardinalis stand out as arguably the single appearance of true red on the High Line, picking up the softer burgundy of the neighboring sumac berries and the spiked shape of the Chelone glabra. Tending to bloom in late summer, the Lobelia are right on schedule this year, standing around twelve inches tall with tubular flowers and dark-green, lance-shaped leaves. In the wild, you'll find Lobelia brightening stream banks, roadsides, ravines, and moist lakesides.

Introduced to Europe in the 1620s, Lobelia takes its common name, Cardinal flower, not from the North American bird, but from the robes of Roman Catholic cardinals. Despite its ability to flourish in many environments, over-picking has resulted in scarcity in some regions of the United States. Without disruption, the Cardinal flower will grow in rich, humusy-to-wet soils in full-to-part shade. On the High Line, the Cardinal flower is situated in the bog, a container planting that is kept well hydrated by the zone gardener. A container planting is wise for Lobelia in urban cultivation generally, as it is intolerant of the salt that so often contaminates city soils. Meanwhile, in restoration efforts, Lobelia is used effectively as a secondary species to increase biodiversity and aesthetics around wetlands.

Many insects are boggled by the tubular shape of the Lobelia's flowers, leaving plenty of nectar for the better-equipped Swallowtail butterfly and Ruby-throated Hummingbird. In some regions, this plant depends entirely upon hummingbirds for pollination. But due to the presence of toxic white latex in its foliage, as with other plants in the Campanulaceae family, it is generally repellent to mammals - good news for any gardener plagued by deer or rabbits. Lobelia was prized as a medicinal plant by many Native American peoples, who understood how to manage its toxicity. It was commonly administered for intestinal ailments, as well as being a key ingredient in love potions. This draws to mind an interesting connection between love and toxicity: "The first poisons were love philtres, potions to ensnare the heart," writes Dale Pendell in Pharmako/Poeia: Plant Powers, Poisons, and Herbcraft. A variety of Lobelia was also famously used to treat syphilis.

In optimum conditions, Lobelia will self-seed freely. Seeds can be collected and cold-moist stratified for three months in a refrigerator, or established plants can be divided in spring.

Diller von Furstenberg Sundeck and Water Feature

Our horticultural team counts on members and friends like you to help keep the High Line beautiful and thriving. Join our community of supporters who play an essential role in the High Line's most important gardening projects – become a member of the High Line today!

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