Cardinal Flower – A Toxic Beauty

Cardinal flower at Sitting Bull Falls, New Mexico.

There is always a first for everyone and this flower was a first for me. Discovered at Sitting Bull Falls in the Lincoln National Forest, New Mexico this bright red flower can stand out in any landscape.

According to the literature, Lobelia cardinalis has been a heavily picked flower for years. The careless taking makes it a rare plant in several of its native areas. Hummingbirds are its main pollinator. Even thought it’s not clear on how this flower came by its common name, its derived from the bright red robes Roman Catholic Cardinals wear.

While all parts of this flower are toxic its toxicity only occurs if it’s ingested in large quantities. Its main toxic agent is alkaloid lobelamine. What happens with this heavily ingested plant are symptoms ranging from nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, salivation, exhaustion and weakness, dilation of pupils, convulsions, and coma.

Native Americans used its root as a tea to treat stomachaches, syphilis, typhoid, and worms. Its green leaves were used in teas for colds, croup, nosebleeds, fevers, and headaches.

Love potion anyone? It’s also reported to be used in love potions where its roots are finely ground and placed in food.


Photograph – © Christena Stephens Photography