Scarlet Mystique: The Meaning and Symbolism of Cardinal Flowers

Lobelia cardinalis, commonly known as the cardinal flower, has long graced wet landscape areas with tall spikes of bright red blossoms. Cultivated in Europe since the 1600s, legend has it that the cardinal flower is named for the long, red robes worn by leaders of the Catholic Church. Native Americans used cardinal flowers, leaves, and roots to treat pain, colds, fevers, digestive problems, and more. Here I’ll take you through the rich history and origins of Cardinal flowers, their meaning, and symbolism in the language of flowers. 

Ultimate Guide to Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis)

Cardinal Flowers Symbolism – Key Takeaways

To the Victorians, a gift of cardinal flowers carried the symbolic meaning of distinction. The flower takes its name from the long, red robes worn by leaders of the Catholic Church. In the language of flowers, L. cardinalis’s spikes of bright crimson lend a sense of distinction to a floral gift.

Etymological Meaning

Legend has it that the common name of L. cardinalis is based on the long, red vestures worn by Roman Catholic cardinals.

The genus name, Lobelia, honors Matthias de l’Obel a 16th-and 17th-century French physician and botanist who helped create a plant classification system based upon foliage.

Cardinal Flower Meaning & Symbolism

Red Cardinal Flowers in bloom

In the language of flowers, the red cardinal flower carries the symbolic meaning of distinction. A gift of cardinal flowers bestows a sense of dignity and distinction. It’s also been linked to romantic love and passion.

The Cultural Significance of Cardinal Flowers

The red cardinal flower’s meaning has long been associated with love and romance. Legend has it that if an elderly woman wants to find love, she needs only to touch the root of a cardinal flower.

In some Native American cultures, finely ground root was added to foods to create an aphrodisiac. It was also considered an essential ingredient in love potions and love charms.

Cardinal Flowers in Art and Literature

Red Cardinal Flowers flowers growing alongside a river

Cardinal flowers have appeared frequently in art and literature. The 19th-century botanical artist Mary Vaux Wolcott painted watercolors of the flowers, which appear in the Smithsonian permanent collection.

The flowers featured in the writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who in his 1842 “Note-Books” wrote:

“…I have found scattered stalks of the cardinal flower, the gorgeous scarlet of which it is a joy even to remember. The world is made brighter and sunnier by flowers of such a hue. Even perfume, which otherwise is the soul and spirit of a flower, may be spared when it arrays itself in this scarlet glory. It is a flower of thought and feeling, too; it seems to have its roots deep down in the hearts of those who gaze at it.”

In her poem “Cardinal Flower,” 19th-century poet Dora Read Goodale compares the bright blossoms to sunset and passion. 

Suitable Gifting Occasions

Cardinal flowers lend a brilliant red color to any floral gift. Their association with love and romance makes them a good choice for anniversaries or special date nights.

The flower’s association with distinction in floriography also makes them a good choice for floral gifts that acknowledge achievements, such as graduation, or to a boss or co-worker.

Wrap Up

Cardinal flower’s bright color and showy blossoms make them an attractive ornamental for the landscape, as well as a striking addition to a floral gift. With a long history of medicinal use and the symbolism of distinction, it’s easy to see why cardinal flowers have been popular and valued for centuries.

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