There is nothing about gardening that can be considered “one and done” - many tasks repeat themselves throughout the seasons. Pruning happens multiple times as does weeding, but the best task of all that gets to happen almost year ‘round is planting. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t find some new treasure on the benches in the nursery that I have to take home and try out in my garden. No matter how crowded things may seem to be, I can always find room for one more plant. It just so happens that this week that plant is a perennial lobelia.
For most of us, the name “lobelia” conjures up an image of a frilly, trailing annual with blue or white flowers that we typically stuff into our baskets or patio planters. This is NOT what I am talking about!! Perennial lobelia, or more specifically Lobelia cardinalis or Cardinal flower, is a hardy perennial native to the eastern United States and grows in moist areas in either full sun or partial shade. Its lipstick red flower spikes usually show up in late summer or early fall on stems that can reach 3 to 4 feet tall. Over the years the breeders have improved on this native and produced several hybrids - the most recognized one being Queen Victoria. The Queen has dark purple foliage and bright red flowers that emerge a little sooner in the summer than other varieties. The flowers are also on a shorter and sturdier plant that can have multiple stems rather than just a few, like others in the species. Hummers will flock around this perennial all day long and the only trick to keeping it happy is to not let it dry out or be consumed by slugs.
In the last decade or so, breeders have continued to upgrade the cardinal flower, crossing it with yet another species, Lobelia siphilitica - a blue flowering American native, producing what is now called a fan flower. Fan flowers look just like the red cardinal flower only they are bigger and come in shades of red, coral, pink, or even blue, all with green or bronze foliage (rather than red foliage like the Queen). Depending on the grower, you might find varieties labeled Starship Deep Rose or Vulcan Red - just to name a few of the choices that are out there. They are all super performers and you can’t go wrong with any of them.
For a completely different take on perennial lobelia try Lobelia tupa, also known as Tobaco del Diablo or Devil’s Tobacco. This is a native to Chile and prefers droughty conditions, just the opposite of the cardinal flower. The handsome olive green foliage is topped with 6 to 8 feet tall stems of unusual brick red-orange blooms. Individual clumps can reach 3 to 4 feet across over time and if you are lucky enough to get it through the first winter, it will usually establish itself very well and even throw out some seedlings from time to time. Bloom time is late summer, when a lot of other perennials have finished up, and of course it is a hummingbird and butterfly magnet. If you have the space, it is well worth the effort.
You can find these perennial lobelias for sale this time of year but they might not be blooming just yet, so watch for the picture tags that come with most plants these days. Take a couple of colors home now and you will be richly rewarded later this summer as will the hummers.