This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Stem tall, two to four feet high, simple, smoothish; leaves oblong-lanceolate, slightly toothed; raceme elongated, rather one-sided; the pedicels much shorter than the leaf-like bracts. (Gray's Botany of the Northern United States. See also Chapman's Flora of the Southern United States, and Wood's Class-Book of Botany.)
MATHIAS DE L'OBEL, in whose honor Lobelia was named, was born at Lisle, in Flanders, in 1538, and died in London in 1616, having reached the good old age of seventy-eieht. From the various accounts that have come down to us we gather that he was a remarkable man. He appears to have been taken to England before his twelfth year. In comparatively early life, and during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, he was gardener to the Earl of Zouch, at Hackney, near London. While in this situation he distinguished himself as a botanist, and subsequently was appointed botanist and physician to King James the First. His works are voluminous, and profusely illustrated by wood-cuts. These illustrations can scarcely be recognized now as belonging to the plants for which they were intended, and in this light it is amusing to find Lobel quoted by Gilibert, as complaining that the cuts illustrating the work of his predecessor, Mathiolus, are so unlike Nature, that he thinks this early author must have drawn his pictures in many cases from his imagination ! It is pleasant to feel that the art of delineation has now progressed to such perfection, that no one in the next two or three hundred years will charge the authors of " Flowers and Ferns of the United States" with a similar weakness. It was not till nearly one hundred years after his death that Lobelia was named in his honor by Plumier, and this fact shows in what estimation his works were held by those who so long afterwards followed him. In many cases plants, with comparatively modern names, were already known under other names long before, and those now named Lobelia were called Rapuntium in old works; but our present species, Lobelia cardinalis, was probably not known to Lobel himself, as the first notice of it that we find in English history occurs in the "Herbal' of Parkinson, thirteen years after his death, who says he had the roots from France where it was received from the New World, having been sent over by the French who had settled in Canada. It is therefore probable that the Cardinal Flower was among the earliest of our native flowers to receive attention in England. It is also probable that the popular name of Cardinal's Flower came with the plant from France, for it is referred to by Rivinius, Ruppius, and other early continental authors, as being then the popular name; but the earliest reference to this name is by Parkinson as before cited. The name was no doubt suggested by the very showy scarlet flower, as a cardinal is one of the highest dignitaries of the Roman Catholic Church, and is distinguished by his wearing a bright scarlet cassock and scarlet hat. That it has many elements of superiority over other plants will be readily admitted, and this fact seems to have impressed itself on many differently-constituted minds. Thus while the early French Canadians would invest the flower with a religious association, others compare it with royalty, and we find Mrs. Sigourney referring to it as " Lobelia attired like a queen in her pride."
Some have martial superiority in view, and our ancient friend Parkinson assures us that it is a "very brave" plant. In all these allusions, however, we see the idea of superiority prevails, and it is not surprising that the floral emblemists have dedicated the Cardinal Flower to "Distinction."
As to its exact place among beautiful flowers, there may be a question. Dr. Lewis Beck, who, in 1833, published a "Botany of the Northern and Middle States," regarded it as "one of the most beautiful plants in the Northern States;" and this, perhaps, would be the verdict of many admirers. It is undoubtedly a gay flower. A person may be gay, or even a cardinal, a queen, or the bravest of the brave, and yet not be beautiful. It will be an interesting theme for a student in beauty. Richness of color and strength will be found, but few other elements of the beautiful.
The Cardinal Flower has some interest from its association with a class of plants famous for medicinal if not for noxious qualities. Dr. Erasmus Darwin, in his " Loves of the Plants," now approaching one hundred years old, sings:
"And fell Lobelia's suffocating breath Loads the dank pinion of the gale with death."
He is referring to a story about a West Indian species, to the effect that it produces pains in the breast, and a difficulty of breathing in a person who may be some feet away from it. Our species is, however, rather beneficial than noxious. Dr. Peyre Porcher, in his "Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests," says that it "is used by the Indians as an anthelmintic," and Rafinesque, in his "Medical Botany," refers particularly to the Cherokees as using it - a tribe which at that time inhabited portions of Georgia and Tennessee.
The Cardinal Flower has a wide distribution over our continent. Dr. Gray limits it to the east of the Mississippi in the Southern United States, and from New Brunswick to the Saskatchewan in the north. Forms found in Colorado, Arizona, and Texas, he regards as constituting another species. But those who have had the plant under cultivation, and noted how much it varies, may be pardoned for believing that Lobelia car-dinalis, L. splendens, L. fulgens, and perhaps other named species from Mexico, are but variations of the same thing. The acknowledged species is found to vary in color even in a wild state. White, yellowish, rose, and crimson, as well as the usual scarlet-colored flowers, are sometimes found. In the South, according to Dr. Chapman, it is generally found in the muddy banks of streams. In most parts of Pennsylvania we seek some deep glen, where "------the spring that gushed,
In overflowing richness from the breast Of all-maternal Nature,------" may have left a swampy deposit in some tiny little plain, in order to find it in perfection. Our drawing was made from a plant sent by Mr. John T. Lovett, from Monmouth county, New Jersey, taken, as he describes it, " from an open swamp." In cultivation it is found to do well in common garden ground, if not very hot and dry.
1. Central portion of a stem that was three feet high.
2. Upper portion of the same in flower.
3. Showing the stamens united in a band round the pistil; after they have ceased to grow the pistil continues to develop, and finally expands its bilobed stigma, a.