The botanical easy-button has been pressed for this one. This is one of the most easily recognized of all American wildflowers. Whether you know it or not, you’ll surely be seeing red.
It is very widespread over near all of the eastern United States, east of a line drawn somewhere between the upper Midwest and eastern Texas.
It is seen in a variety of habitats, too: usually damp. It likes a mountain streamside, in the shade, but it also does well in freshwater tidal marshes near the coast. Otherwise, you can find it blooming away in bogs or damp meadows.
This species is a member of a rather large genus, with about 300 or so different species widely scattered around the world. Some of these species make great garden plants.
These species are more or less allied to the very attractive and showy bluebells, which are collectively known as members of the genus Campanula, and most botanical treatments have them as members of the bluebell family.
There is a considerable amount of controversy as to their accurate family placement; they may deserve recognition as their own, distinctive family.
Our showy red Mystery Plant is a perennial, coming up from a leafy base. The stems on vigorous individuals may be 4 feet tall, or even taller, and smooth, or slightly hairy.
The bright green leaves are alternate and lance-shaped, either smooth-margined or with a few jaggedy teeth. The flowers are always at the top of the stem, in a raceme. Each flower has a short stalk and a green calyx. The calyx is bowl-shaped at the base, but soon flares out into five sharp-pointed, spreading lobes.
The corolla is easily among the reddest of all wildflowers anywhere and up to nearly 2 inches long. These are extremely vibrant, sometimes almost seeming to glow. Photographers like to complain that the redness of the flowers is sometimes hard to capture with their craft.
The shade is somewhat variable, but this is a kind of red that the artists will tell you is a “cool” shade rather than a “warm” one.
Every now and then, these plants feature pink or even white corollas. The corolla is made up of five fused petals which form a tube and at the upper end are two prominent lips.
The lower lip is deeply divided into three sharp-pointed lobes. The upper lip is deeply split down the middle or “cleft.” Through this cleft arises a distinctive stamen tube with five stamens more or less fused together. The anthers are a pale blue-gray.
Various sorts of bees often visit these flowers, but they probably don’t do any pollination. In general, bee’s tongues are probably too short for these flowers. It is hummingbirds that are likely the most effective pollinators.
If you study plant/pollinator interactions much, you will probably learn that hummingbirds tend to go for red flowers, or at least brightly colored ones, especially those that are tubular. Like this one.
John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina. The Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call (803) 777-8196.
[Answer: “Cardinal flower,” “Red Betty,” Lobelia cardinalis]
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