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July Wildflower Spotlight: 
Cardinal Flower

July’s wildflower of the month bears one of the deepest and most intense shades of red to be found in all of nature. The crimson petals of the Cardinal Flower are painted with a pigment more intense and vibrant than that found in any other wildflower in our region. Redder than the Fire Pink, the Indian Paintbrush, the Bee Balm. Redder even than ripe Dogwood berries or October Maple leaves. Rivaled in color intensity only by the breeding plumage of the Scarlet Tanager, an elusive bird of the forest canopy which returns each spring from the Amazon basin to breed in Appalachian hardwood forests, bearing the fire of the tropics in its mantle of crimson feathers. 

But, unlike the Scarlet Tanager, the Cardinal Flower displays the full beauty of its intense coloration at eye level, along roadside meadows and forest paths where the summer traveler can pause to drink in its crimson essence and admire the details of its floral structure. 

While examining the long, crimson nectar tube at the base of the flaring petals, beneath the protruding stamens and pistils, the persistent flower watcher may observe the primary pollinator of the Cardinal Flower – the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. This jewel of a bird will sip nectar while hovering at the opening of a Cardinal Flower’s nectar tube, at the same time dusting its forehead with pollen from the protruding anthers. The pollen is then transferred to the strategically placed stigma of female-staged flowers visited in further foraging. 

Hummingbirds are attracted to the color red, and we can thank the color preference of this tiny bird for the beauty we admire in the Cardinal Flower. For the blossoms are there to please the Hummingbirds, not us, and without the Ruby-throat our summer meadows would be lacking there most vibrant hue.

– Dan Lazar

Previous Spotlights:
     - JuneRosebay Rhododendron