Lobelia

If I had a blog, today I would write about following nature’s calendar in my garden.

When you live close to nature, one of the benefits is following the passage of time through the changes in the natural world. In my yard, the month of August, and the end of summer, are marked by the blooming of two of my favorite flowers: Cardinal flower and blue lobelia.

Both of these striking flowers are in the lobelia family, a species defined by the presence of five lobed petals on the flower. The family of plants is named for Belgian botanist, Mathias de L’Obel, who often used a “latinized” form of his name Lobelius.

081113_0822 webThe name cardinal flower (lobelius cardinalis) was inspired by the color of the robes of the Roman Catholic cardinals. John Burroughs, the 19th-century naturalist, wrote, “But when vivid color is wanted, what can surpass or equal our cardinal flower? There is a glow about this flower as if color emanated from it as from a live coal.” It was first found by explorers in Canada who sent the plant to France in the mid-1620’s. Many Native American tribes used tea made from the roots and leaves as medicines to treat everything from bronchitis to rheumatism. The leaves were often smoked in place of tobacco, despite the fact that overuse can be toxic.

In this day and age, cardinal flower is of greatest benefit to the ruby-throated hummingbird, its primary pollinator. The beak of the ruby-throat is perfectly shaped to reach deep into the flower where the nectar and pollen reside. The flowers are especially adapted to pollination by hummingbirds. They are said to “pull hummingbirds from the sky.” In fact, their blooming period corresponds especially well with the southern migration of ruby-throated hummingbirds to Mexico and Central America for the winter.

09242014_093525 webGrowing alongside the cardinal flowers are its cousin, blue lobelia. These blue-violet blooms are a favorite of bees and, being one of the last flowers to bloom during the growing season, are essential to building the bees’ store of food for the winter. Cardinal flower and blue lobelia are so closely related, they can cross-pollinate and produce blooms of fuchsia, white, and pale pink.

When these favorites are in bloom, I know the clock is turning from the bounty of summer to preparation for the scarcity of winter. These are flowers who provide lasting nourishment for the hummingbirds and bees. Cardinal flower and blue lobelia tell me it is time to add to the wood-pile, put by the last of the preserves, and glean the last of the garden’s bounty. Winter is coming and it is time to gather the harvest at last.

In a world where everything seems up for grabs, it is reassuring to see the constancy of nature. Regardless of how crazy the calendar on my wall may become, nature’s measure of time is regular as a heartbeat, and as comforting as a soft blanket on a chilly fall night. We need things we can be sure of and I thank my garden for giving me something on which I can rely.

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