Gardening for Health

Lovely Lobelias: A Favorite of Pollinators 

By Maria Price 

As I write this, I’m sitting at the edge of my garden watching a hummingbird chase a goldfinch menacingly away from his favorite flowers, our native mid-Atlantic plants, the great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) and the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

The vibrant red of the cardinal flower is even more vibrant than the bird it’s named after. This plant’s natural range is New Brunswick to Minnesota and south to the Gulf of Mexico. It likes to grow in moist to wet soil in sun to partial shade. It grows 24- to 48-inches tall with up to 50 1½-inch long crimson flowers along the 12- to 24-inch long stalk in late summer.  

It attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. The great ash sphinx moth drinks nectar from cardinal flowers with its 86-inch long tongue. Cardinal flower grows easily from seed and naturalizes freely in a garden where there is very moist soil and lots of light.   

Like many wetland species, cardinal flower reaches its greatest stature in saturated soils in full sun. A wet ditch area around your house would be ideal for growing cardinal flower. Cardinal flower hybridizes readily with great blue lobelia to produce flowers that are pink, purple and magenta. Coming up on a wild stand of cardinal flower next to a pond is an exhilarating sight. 

The great blue lobelia also likes moist to wet soil in sun to partial sun and grows 24 to 36 inches tall and blooms in late summer with sapphire blue flowers. The hummingbirds and the sphinx moth love the flowers’ nectar. The three-pointed petals of the flower that make up the lower lip are marked with white. The plants are beautiful and relatively easy to grow, tolerating drier areas than their red cousins.  

There are many hybrids between the two species. Bumblebees are the most frequent visitor and primary pollinators. When they land on the flower, they push the style and filament column out of the way, turn their bodies 180 degrees and enter the flower’s corolla and transfer pollen to the next flower. Digger bees, yellow-faced bees, green sweat bees and small carpenter bees feed on the pollen and nectar of the great blue lobelia. 

Introduce lobelias to your garden and welcome lots of pollinators at the same time.