By Sandy Metzger, Sonoma County Master Gardener
You don’t see this one in gardens that often, and I’m not sure why. Many people think purple when they think of Lobelia, as in the tiny-flowered annual that’s excellent in hanging baskets, containers, or borders. Or, they might think of the versatile L. cardinalis with its rich green foliage and striking dark red tubular flowers so attractive to hummingbirds. This one likes some shade and it loves water, plenty of it. In fact, you can plant it in a pot and place it in a bog or water garden.
But their cousin, L. laxiflora, which hails from Mexico and Central America, is a whole other story. Upon first seeing this plant, one might think it’s either a Phygelius or an Epilobium (both perennials with orange tubular flowers.) But no, they are not even in the same families; L. laxiflora is actually in the Campanulaceae family, and the other two are Scrophulariaceae and Onagraceae respectively, similar in looks, but not related.
With her brilliant red and yellow two-lipped tubular flowers, L. laxiflora is a sun-loving perennial and needs occasional water after becoming established. I say “occasional”—perhaps she’d like more—but because she’s rhizomatous, with more water, she’d just spread out more quickly. With less water, she stays in check and seems to thrive and bloom regardless.
Standing fairly straight on red-tinted stems up to three feet tall, those bright inch and a half long blooms beckon hummingbirds. Termed a “sub-shrub” because the slim stems turn woody, she blooms brilliantly until frost, and dies back. The first year I grew L. laxiflora, when the foliage and flowers began shriveling, I was certain she was diseased or I’d totally mishandled her. Those stems and blooms got deader and browner by the day; I let them stand there the entire winter, a reminder of what once was.
Lo and behold, come March the next year, there was that strong, spring-green growth, popping up out of the ground and in a circular clump larger than the previous year. I restrained myself until the end of March from pruning off the old stems, leaving them there to protect the tender growth in case of a late frost. Then slowly but surely, with more rain, then more sun and warmer air, and finally warmer soil, up they came to their full height, blooming floriferously through October or that first frost.
©Sonoma County Master Gardeners