I must say I’m really enjoying the red-hot pokers flowering in my garden at the moment. Red-hot pokers or Kniphofia to give them their genus name, live up to their common name by sending up blazing torches of red and yellow flowers just when the garden needs a winter warm up.
Most of the garden varieties are listed as hybrids of Kniphofia uvaria, Kniphofia linearifolia and Kniphofia brueae and often called Kniphofia x praecox. Their namesake, Prof Kniphof, was an 18th century German Professor of Medicine, a botanist and author of what looks like a marvelous book, Botanica in Originali. Published in 1733 it documents his herbarium collection. Kniphofia was named in his honour by another German botanist, Conrad Moench.
I have several varieties in my garden and they give a succession of flowers from late autumn well into winter. Each clump blooms for several weeks and some of them repeat flower.
The first to bloom in my collection is a lime and yellow variety called Kniphofia ‘Lime Glow’, then comes a robust orange and yellow form (name lost) followed by a now large clump of Kniphofia ‘Winter Cheer’. I counted 25 flower heads emerging on this plant today, with more still lurking among the stappy leaves.
At 80cm the flowers stand proud of the foliage and look great backlit by the low winter sunlight. They’ll get even taller as they mature. The leaves sprawl out with some of them 120cm long.
I like red-hot pokers best as they are just opening and the new flowers are glowing. After this stage, as the stems continue to grow, the noisy miner birds and wattlebirds tend to notice them. While it is lovely to have birds in the garden, the weight of them on the stems as they sip the nectar gradually causes the stems to bend over. My tall, soldier-straight pokers end up bowed down and all over the place.
The flowers also make a great show in a vase combined with other early winter flowers such as stems of echeveria blooms and branches of red-tinged nandina.
Easy to grow
To say these plants are easy to grow is an understatement. Coming from South Africa, they tolerate everything and still come up trumps. They do best in full sun and withstand salt winds and cold winters. They grow beside the coast or inland.
The only maintenance is to remove the spent flower stems and also to tidy up the clumps by removing old or wayward leaves – cut really untidy clumps back to ground level if they look tatty or are dying down. Some of the kniphofias are herbaceous and die down, while others are perennial.
The clumps keep getting bigger and bigger each year. If you are feeling strong, they can be lifted and divided in spring to spread them around where you want some extra winter colour.
They do look striking in a mass planting. A gardener in Victoria sent me a shot of his border of Kniphofia ‘Winter Cheer’ in full flower – they were growing in a broad swathe in front of his house and were an absolute traffic stopper.
Along with the reliable autumn and winter bloomers there are other species and cultivars that flower in spring and summer including Kniphofia caulescens. As well as the robust-sized clumps I grow, there are smaller, dainty varieties too such as Kniphofia ‘Little Maid’, with yellow flowers that age to green on 60cm high stems. This variety also has more grassy leaves than the larger varieties which have broader, strappy leaves that can be quite rough to handle.
The bold yellow flowered Kniphofia ‘James Nottle’ is a variety to look out for. It is an Australian variety selected by Trevor Nottle and named for his son James who sadly was killed in a car accident.
Kniphofia appears to be wandering from plant family to plant family. My 2003 edition of ‘Flora‘ and the RHS Plant Finder lists them as part of the Asphodelaceae family, while Wikipedia puts them into Xanthorrhoeaceae (along with our Australian grass trees). The Plants Database for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has them in Liliaceae. Take your pick.