Bartlett on Gardening: Wet and Wild--Embracing the Bog

Last year we had the hottest summer on record along with extreme drought. This year we are way ahead on rain. It has been a great opportunity to identify those areas in the yard that just stay wet. I have plenty of those. In fact, after the yard guy quit a few years back, we gave up and created a bog garden. I have been amazed at what will happily live in such conditions.

Native to eastern North America, Lobelia cardinalis, cardinal flower (above), loves wet feet. Lobelia do not attract cardinals. The term “cardinal” refers to the flower color. Its natural habitat is found along stream banks, in swamps and low wooded areas.

Scarlet racemes arise from rosettes of dark green leaves in late summer. The flowers are three to four feet tall and are beloved by hummingbirds and butterflies. Lobelia is quite cold tolerant and appreciates afternoon shade in our area. I have found it to be a short-lived perennial.

Lobelia siphilitica, blue cardinal flower (right), is equally at home in the bog but more useful as a garden plant. It has a more compact growth habit, being two to three feet tall when in bloom. It produces blue flowers in late summer which also attract hummingbirds. It forms clumps and also produces volunteers from seed. It is truly perennial for me.

Lobelia gerardii (left) is a hybrid of L. cardinalis and L. siphilitica. Also known as “vedrariensis,” it has outstanding attributes from each parent. It is tall and substantial, making a statement in the back of the border. The flowers are royal purple. Like the other lobelia, it needs consistent moisture and afternoon shade to perform best. All three plants are deer and rabbit resistant because all parts of them are toxic.

There are many members of the lobelia family. An interesting native annual is Lobelia inflata, Indian tobacco. Native Americans smoked it to treat respiratory conditions such as bronchitis. The active ingredient, lobeline, has effects similar to those of nicotine. In 1993, the FDA prohibited the sale of this potentially toxic herb in smoking products.

As hobbies go, gardening is never boring. There is always some challenge compelling us to seek fresh solutions. Frustrating as it may be to explore alternatives, these paths may lead to wonderful discoveries. I know that embracing the bog has done that for me.

Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.

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