Cardinal flowers bloomed creek-edge,
hummingbirds sucked the dark reds.
My toes went mussels tunneling
brief in sand or mud.
Brown snails seemed neither
deceived nor amused.
By Will Inman
When first I noticed this flower, it was a bright red glow of color alongside the babbling creek under the shadowed recesses of the tall oaks, tulip poplars and Virginia pines. I had located other members of this genus in the past, but never had I noticed the red flowered variety, and red is my favorite color! It goes by many descriptive common names…Gagroot, Emetic Weed, Pukeweed, and Asthma weed!
Its species name (cardinalis) and the common name Cardinal Flower reflects the color of the flower and in its time referenced the color of the Catholic Cardinals robes. Although this is true to me the names reference the beautiful red cardinal bird that makes this area its home year round. Gigage Asuwisdi (red paint), the Cherokee name, for this plant was given due to an old myth, where the drab bird helped coyote and his reward was being given this beautiful plant with which to paint himself, today we know the bird as the cardinal!
This plant came to the attention of the Europeans in the 1620’s when French explorers in Canada first sent it back to France. The botanist John Parkinson of England wrote, “The rich crimson cardinal flower…it groweth neere the river in Canada, where the French plantation in America is seated,” after having received a shipment of seeds from Paris in 1629.
It was used for many years by the Cherokee and other native tribes to treat epilepsy, fever sores, parasitic worms, typhoid, witchcraft, and grieving sickness. It’s most common use was for bronchitis, bronchial asthma, and in the treatment of venereal disease such as syphilis. The root is a primary ingredient in the formulae for this final purpose. To treat respiratory complaints like the bronchitis and asthma, as well as catarrh (inflammation of the mucous membranes accompanied by copious mucous production) the Meskwaki used a leaf tea for treatment,
All use as a medicine should be carefully considered as all parts of this plant are toxic. Cattle, sheep, goats and humans find the alkaloid lobeline very poisonous. The symptoms of poisoning are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, salivation, exhaustion and weakness, dilation of pupils, convulsions, and coma. It is reported that it must be consumed in large quantities to accomplish the worst level toxicity.
An interesting Native American use of the plant was in magic. The root was used as part of a love potion. The entire plant was dried and powdered was used in ceremonies, and may have been used to help dispel storms.