The Plant Native

Cardinal Flower

Highlights

If you want hummingbirds in your garden, plant this flower immediately. Cardinal Flower sends up a tall, straight stalk which it then covers in tiny red flowers filled with nectar. Cardinal Flowers like sun to part sun and need consistent water to thrive. Plant Cardinal Flowers in groups of five (ideally) and watch hummingbirds zip around all summer. Scroll below for planting tips.

Full sun – part sun
3-4′ tall
Hummingbird favorite
Lobelia cardinalis

Cardinal Flower's shape is made for hummingbird beaks

Dig Deeper

Explore the history, types, and where to plant native Cardinal Flower

Table of Contents

Three reasons why Cardinal Flowers are perfect for hummingbirds

These flowers have evolved to be an ideal hummingbird nectar food source. Here’s three reasons why:

1. Cardinal Flowers are tall—2-3 feet—perfect for hummingbird access

The height of the plant makes it perfect for hummingbird snacking. The 2-3 foot height of cardinal flowers put them high enough for a hummingbird to easily fly around and access the red flowers from all sides. As you can see from the video above, cardinal flowers are made to be hummingbird buffets.

2. The Cardinal Flower shape is basically a hummingbird cup

Just looking at a Cardinal Flower shows how perfect it is for hummingbirds—its flowers are shaped to be hummingbird cups. The individual flowers on the Cardinal Flower stalk tip slightly up to contain the nectar within, while the shape of the flowers is perfect for a hummingbird beak.

3. Red is a favorite color of hummingbirds

Have you ever noticed that plastic hummingbird feeders are often red? This is because hummingbird eyesight is attuned to seeing red, yellow, orange, and pink colors. The reason may be that these colored flowers have the sweetest nectar.

According to the Brandywine Conservancy, “Some reports indicate that blossoms in these colors are higher in sucrose—a form of sugar that hummingbirds can fully metabolize.” Love knowing that hummingbirds are looking for the sweetest flowers ❤️

Butterflies love Cardinal Flower, too

Cardinal flower nectar is also a sweet treat for butterflies. Butterflies and hummingbirds are both after the flower nectar held within a cardinal flower petal cup.

A spicebush swallowtail butterfly snacks on some cardinal flower nectar

Where to plant Cardinal Flowers

Cardinal Flowers thrive in full sun to part sun. Their native habitat includes meadows, or the banks of streams or waterways. Which is why…

Cardinal Flowers need consistent water

Consistent moisture is needed for Cardinal Flowers to flourish; if the soil dries out the plant may die. Their native habitats are along stream edges or wet meadows. Cardinal Flowers are most happy in moist garden locations, like an area in your garden near a gutter downspout or an area where water tends to collect after the rain. Rain gardens are great places, too!

Map from the USDA

Where is Cardinal Flower native?

Cardinal Flower is native to almost all of the United States and half of Canada. Plant away, native plant lovers!

How to grow cardinal flower

Grow Cardinal Flower from seeds

Cardinal Flower seeds are incredibly tiny—which is why when you get a seed packet, you get thousands of seeds.

Plant Cardinal Flowers seeds in the fall

According to Everwilde, “Direct sow Cardinal Flower seeds in late fall, planting on the surface of the soil since these seeds need light to germinate.” In the spring, the seedlings will emerge. Keep them watered regularly during their first year to get them established.

Plant Cardinal Flowers seeds in the spring

Cardinal Flower seeds need to be cold for 30-60 days before they wake up and start to grow. (This type of cold nap before seeds wake up is called “dry stratification.”) This cold napping period mimics what these seeds experience in the winter, out in the wild.

If you get seeds from a Cardinal Flower in the fall or winter, you can mimic the wild indoors! Here’s how (steps from Prairie Nursery):

  1. Store seeds in Ziploc bags in a refrigerator, or in a rodent-proof container in an unheated building (like a garage) over winter for 30-120 days
  2. Most prairie grasses and wildflowers—like Cardinal Flower—require only 30 to 60 days of dry stratification to break seed dormancy

After they’ve had their cold nap, it’s time to plant the seeds.

To start indoors:

  1. Sow the seed 6-8 weeks before the last frost of spring
  2. Keep the soil lightly moist until germination (water in a spray bottle works well)
  3. Transplant the seedlings as soon as there is no chance of frost
  4. Water daily on dry days for the first month to get them established

Grow Cardinal Flower from plants

There are many ways to find Cardinal Flower plants for your garden. Here are four reliable ways to find some:

Cardinal Flower

Where can I find seeds and plants?

Finding native plants can be challenging (we partly blame Marie Antoinette.) To make it easier, we’ve assembled four sourcing ideas.

Native Plant Nurseries

Our list of native nurseries makes finding one a breeze

Online Communities

Local Facebook groups are a great plant source

If you can, plant at least five cardinal flowers together so hummingbirds can easily find them

Added bonus: Cardinal Flower is deer-proof

Deer do NOT eat Cardinal Flower! If you’re worried about deer nibbling your garden, Cardinal Flowers are a perfect native plant. 

Cardinal Flower alongside Great Blue Lobelia shows the similarities (and differences) between these plant cousins

Cardinal Flower vs. Great Blue Lobelia

Cardinal Flowers are related to another pollinator favorite: Great Blue Lobelia. Both are in the Lobelia genus and make tall stalks and cover them with flowers.

As you can see, their color difference is clear (Cardinal Flower is red, GBL is blue-purple) and their flower shapes are different.

What to plant with Cardinal Flower

There are so many other hummingbird and butterfly-friendly plants that look great with Cardinal Flowers and like the same water-heavy area. Here are some inspiring plants to pair in your garden:

Shrubs and trees to pair with Cardinal Flower
buttonbush-butterfly-plant-native-gardening

Buttonbush

A white Sweetbay Magnolia flower blooming, photographed growing on a branch of the Sweetbay Magnolia tree.

Sweetbay Magnolia

Flowers to pair with Cardinal Flower

Looking to make a rain-friendly pollinator garden? These are perfect native flower pairings for Cardinal Flower:

Cardinal Flower is a beautiful and easy-to-grow plant that’s perfect for any garden. By following the simple care tips we’ve shared, you can enjoy its bright red blooms for years to come. To get more ideas on native plant gardening, explore our native plant library or keep exploring our thematic guides below. Happy planting!

UPDATED —
04/12/2024
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