Wild Flowers of Pittsburgh


Venus’ Looking-Glass (Triodanis perfoliata)

A cheerful and distinctive member of the Bellflower family that likes poor soil: this was one of a colony growing out of the gravel by a railroad in Oakmont. Nothing else in our area has the combination of a columnar single stalk with clasping leaves and upward-facing violet-blue flowers. More commonly known in botanical literature under the genus Specularia, which is also called Legousia or Legouzia.

Gray describes the genus (which he calls Specularia) and the species:


Calyx 5 (or 3-4)-lobed. Corolla wheel-shaped, 5-lobed. Stamens 5, separate; the membranaceous hairy filaments shorter than the anthers. Stigmas 3. Capsule prismatic or slender-cylindric, 3-celled, opening by 3 small lateral valves. — Low annuals, with axillary blue or purplish flowers, in American species dimorphous, the earlier small and cleistogamous. (Name from Speculum Veneris, the early name of the common European species.) Legouzia Durand.

S perfoliata (L.) A. DC. Somewhat hairy, 1-9 dm. high; leaves roundish or ovate, clasping by the heart-shaped base, toothed; flowers sessile, solitary or 2-3 together in the axils, only the upper or later ones having a conspicuous and expanding corolla; capsule ellipsoid, short, straight, opening rather below the middle; seeds lenticular. (Legouzia Britton.) —Sterile open ground, s. Me, to Ont., westw. and southw.

In Wild Flowers Worth Knowing, Neltje Blanchan gives us this description:

Venus’ Looking-glass; Clasping Bellflower

Specularia perfoliata (Legouzia perfoliata)

Flowers—Violet blue, from 1/2 to 3/4 in. across; solitary or 2 or 3 together, seated, in axils of upper leaves. Calyx lobes varying from 3 to 5 in earlier and later flowers, acute, rigid; corolla a 5-spoked wheel; 5 stamens; 1 pistil with 3 stigmas. Stem: 6 in. to 2 ft. long, hairy, densely leafy, slender, weak.

Leaves: Round, clasped about stem by heart-shaped base.

Preferred Habitat—Sterile waste places, dry woods.

Flowering Season—May—September.

Distribution—From British Columbia, Oregon, and Mexico, east to Atlantic Ocean.

At the top of a gradually lengthened and apparently overburdened leafy stalk, weakly leaning upon surrounding vegetation, a few perfect blossoms spread their violet wheels, while below them are insignificant earlier flowers, which, although they have never opened, nor reared their heads above the hollows of the little shell-like leaves where they lie secluded, have, nevertheless, been producing seed without imported pollen while their showy sisters slept. But the later blooms, by attracting insects, set cross-fertilized seed to counteract any evil tendencies that might weaken the species if it depended upon self-fertilization only. When the European Venus’ Looking-glass used to be cultivated in gardens here, our grandmothers tell us it was altogether too prolific, crowding out of existence its less fruitful, but more lovely, neighbors.

Great Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)

Sometimes called “Blue Cardinal Flower” because of its strong resemblance to its close relative the Cardinal Flower, L. cardinalis, with which this species apparently hybridizes. The unattractive species name comes from an old belief that it was a treatment for syphilis. The Plant Fact Sheet (PDF) from the Natural Resources Conservation Service adds that “The Meskwaki ground up the roots of this plant and used it as an anti-divorce remedy.” What America needs today is more ground-up Lobelia siphilitica roots.

The flowers are variable in color: some are solid pale blue, some darker blue, and some—as here—strongly bicolored. A white form is found occasionally.

Like the Cardinal Flower, this Lobelia likes damp situations; this one grew on the bank of a stream in Manor, where it was blooming in early October.

Gray describes the genus and the species:

LOBELIA [Plumier] L. Calyx 5-cleft, with a short tube. Corolla with a straight tube split down on the (apparently) upper side, somewhat 2-lipped; the upper lip of 2 rather erect lobes, the lower lip spreading and 3-cleft. Two of the anthers in our species bearded at the top. Pod 2-celled, many-seeded, opening at the top. — Flowers axillary or chiefly in bracted racemes ; in summer and early autumn. (Dedicated to Matthias de l’Obel, an early Flemish herbalist.)

Flowers blue, or blue variegated with white.

Flowers rather large (corolla-tube 1-1.3 cm. long), spicate-racemose; stem leafy, 0.3-1 m. high; perennial.

Leaves ovate to lanceolate, numerous; lip of corolla glabrous.

L. siphilitica L. (GREAT LOBELIA.) Somewhat hairy; leaves thin, acute at both ends, 0.5-1.5 dm. long, irregularly serrate; flowers nearly 2.6 cm. long, pediceled, longer than the leafy bracts; corolla light blue, rarely white; calyx hirsute, the sinuses with conspicuous deflexed auricles, the short tube hemispherical. — Low grounds, Me. to Ont. westw. and southw.; rare eastw.

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

By far our most striking Lobelia. The brilliant red of this spectacular native flower has made it a favorite in the perennial garden. In the wild, it’s most at home in damp areas with at least partial shade; here it was growing in a moist thicket in Schenley Park, where it was blooming in late July.

Gray describes the genus and the species:

LOBELIA [Plumier] L. Calyx 5-cleft, with a short tube. Corolla with a straight tube split down on the (apparently) upper side, somewhat 2-lipped; the upper lip of 2 rather erect lobes, the lower lip spreading and 3-cleft. Two of the anthers in our species bearded at the top. Pod 2-celled, many-seeded, opening at the top. — Flowers axillary or chiefly in bracted racemes ; in summer and early autumn. (Dedicated to Matthias de l’Obel, an early Flemish herbalist.)

• Flowers deep red, large; stem simple.

L. cardinàlis L. (CARDINAL-FLOWER.) Tall (0.6-1.3 m. high), perennial by offsets, smoothish; leaves oblong-lanceolate, slightly toothed; raceme elongated, rather 1-sided, the pedicels much shorter than the leaf-like bracts; the large corolla intensely red, rarely rose-color or white. — Low grounds, s. N. B. to Ont., and southw. — Hybrids with the next species [L. siphilitica] occur.


In Our Common Wild Flowers of Spring and Autumn (1906), Alice M. Dowd gives us a bit of the lore of this favorite flower:


” The cardinal-flower whose heart-red bloom
Glows like a living coal upon the green
Of the midsummer meadows.”

—Richard Watson Gilder.

Not even in the brilliant leaves of the October woods is there anything to match the color of the cardinal-flower. In moist ground along the streams the vivid red of its clustered flowers appears in July and remains until October. “It comes in with the heat and goes out with the frost.”

The smooth stems grow from two to four feet high and have dark green, lance-shaped leaves, the upper ones without any petioles. From leaf-like bracts along the upper part of the stalk the flowers grow on short pedicels in a somewhat one-sided raceme. Out of the five-cleft calyx-cup rises the red tube of the corolla. Three petals, partly united beyond the tube, form a spreading lijp on the lower side of the flower.

A slit down to the very base of the corolla separates the two upper petals. In this slit a slender tube of united stamens rises high, and curves slightly downward at its tip, where the dark ring of anthers, bending toward the lower petals, makes it look like the extinguished torch that has kindled the flaming corolla.

Through the tube of united anthers the stigma pushes its way, with lips tightly closed until it has grown out of reach of the stamens.

The corolla-tube is too long for insects. Even the bumblebee finds this flower-well too deep for him to draw nectar easily. The favored guest here is the humming-bird. Like the columbine and the painted cup, the cardinal-flower wears the color that humming-birds prefer. Scarlet flowers and hummingbirds belong chiefly to America. Humming-birds are found only on the American continent and in the West Indies.

Scarlet flowers are rare in Europe and Asia, but, with their bird-friends, they are especially abundant in the West Indies, Mexico, and tropical South America.

The cardinal-flower is a native of North America. An English botanist, writing in 1630, mentions it, and says he had its root from France. It was sent to France from Canada by some of the early French settlers, and it is quite probable that it received its name in France from its resemblance in color to the cap and cloak of the cardinals in the Roman church. It takes kindly to cultivation, and perhaps it is destined to survive only as a garden flower when it has been lost to field and meadow.

It is sometimes called red lobelia, for it is a true lobelia, though all of its sisters are blue. Most of the lobelias, great and small, continue to blossom through September. The most common species is called Indian tobacco. It is generally found in dry, open fields or by the roadside. It has small, light blue flowers, and large, round, inflated seed-boxes joined to the calyx.

Its relationship to the cardinal-flower is evident in the split corolla, the tube of stamens, and the three-cleft upper lip. It is poisonous to taste and is used in medicine.


In Wild Flowers Every Child Should Know (1914), Frederic William Stack worries, as many other writers did, about the future of this marvelous beauty, which was being picked into oblivion by thoughtless flower-gatherers:

The Cardinal Flower is one of the most striking and attractive of our showy flowers. It possesses the most gorgeous, glowing red colouring imaginable, and because of its unsurpassing vividness and brilliancy, its beauty is its undoing. It is a target for every • ruthless, clasping hand that can reach it, and for this reason it is rapidly becoming exterminated. In intensity of colouring it is the Scarlet Tanager of the wild flowers. The usually single, rather large, slightly angular, smoothish stalk is leafy and hollow, and grows from two to four and a half feet high, from perennial off-shoots. The thin, smooth, or slightly hairy leaves are oblong to lance-shaped. They are irregularly toothed, and the upper ones clasp the stalk. The colour is dark green. The numerous, deep cardinal flowers are gathered in a loose and often onesided terminal spike. The tube-like corolla, which is an inch long, is split down the upper side, and has five narrow, pointed, flaring, velvety lobes. These lobes are bent at right angles, the three central ones set together, and partly separated from the other two; which stand somewhat erect or recurved, and at right angles with the central one, and opposite each other. The five stamens are united in a tube around the style, and stand out, far beyond the throat of the flower, with a prominent, curving tip. The green calyx has five long, slender parts. Occasionally the flowers are pinkish or white. The Cardinal Flower is found in very moist situations, commonly on the banks of streams and ditches from July to September, from Florida, Texas, and Kansas, well into Canada.


Asa B Strong, in his American Flora (1851), gives us the supposed meaning of the plant in the “language of flowers”:

CARDINAL-FLOWER. Your beauty is heightened by contrast. A beautiful flower, growing in swamps, among rushes and brambles. When first seen it elicits emotions of surprise and pleasure.


Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata)

This is by far our most common lobelia, a close relative both of the little blue lobelias that dangle from our hanging baskets and the stately Cardinal Flowers that adorn our perennial gardens. It likes an open woodland or the shady margin of a meadow, but it will also spring up in the middle of a sunny lawn given half a chance. The flowers are pale blue, often almost white. The plant in this picture was blooming in early July along a wooded trail in Scott Township.

The name “Indian Tobacco” comes from the fact that certain Indian tribes smoked the stuff, in which practice they were imitated by some of the English colonists. All accounts say the taste and stench are at least as foul as those of real tobacco. It is, as Gray points out, poisonous, and regrettably still “a noted quack medicine” today.

Lobelias are placed in their own family Lobeliaceae by Gray, but most modern botanists place them in the family Campanulaceae, the Bellflower Family, often as a subfamily called Lobelioideae.

Gray describes the genus and the species:

LOBELIA [Plumier] L. Calyx 6-cleft, with a short tube. Corolla with a straight tube split down on the (apparently) upper side, somewhat 2-lipped; the upper lip of 2 rather erect lobes, the lower lip spreading and 3-cleft. Two of the anthers in our species bearded at the top. Pod 2-celled, many-seeded, opening at the top. — Flowers axillary or chiefly in bracted racemes; in summer and early autumn. (Dedicated to Matthias de l’Obel, an early Flemish herbalist.)

* * Flowers blue, or blue variegated with white.

+- +- Flowers smaller (corolla-tube not more than 4-8 mm. long).

++ ++ Stem leafy, often paniculately branched; flowers loosely racemose; sinuses of calyx not appendaged; annual or biennial.

=  = Leaves ovate or oblong, obtusely toothed; pod inflated, wholly inferior.

L. inflàta L. (INDIAN TOBACCO.) Stems paniculately much branched from an annual root, pubescent with spreading hairs, 3-8 dm. high; leaves gradually diminishing into leaf-like bracts, which exceed the lower short-pediceled flowers; calyx-tube ovoid; corolla only 3-4 mm. long. — Dry open fields and thickets. — Plant poisonous and a noted quack medicine.

Creeping Bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides)


A European garden flower escaped from cultivation, often in yards of older homes where it had originally been planted. This plant grew at the edge of a sidewalk in Beechview in the shadow of a tall hedge.

From Gray’s Manual: C. RAPUNCULOIDES L. Stems slender, 6-10 dm. high, smoothish, or finely pubescent above; lower leaves long-petioled, cordate-ovate ; the upper ovate-lanceolate, short-petioled to sessile, irregularly serrate-dentate, hispidulous beneath; flowers nodding, single in the axils of bracts, forming racemes; calyx and capsule scabrous-puberulent; corolla campanulate, 2-3 cm. long; capsule opening by pores at base. Roadsides, thickets, etc., e. Que. to Ont., 0., and s. N. Y. July, Aug. (Introd. from Eurasia.) Var. UCRANICA (Bess.) C. Koch. Smoother; the calyx and capsule essentially glabrous. Similar situations, Que. and N. E. (Introd. from Russia.)

Although Gray says it blooms in July and August, this plant was part of a colony happily blooming in early October.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.