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Red hot pokers strike a pose

Jennifer Stackhouse

Jennifer Stackhouse

June 29, 2014

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.

Red hot poker, Kniphofia Wint

Red hot poker, Kniphofia ‘Winter Cheer’

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.

Garden varieties
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.

Red hot poker Kniphofia closeup

My unnamed Kniphofia hybrid

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.

Red hot pokers in my garden

Red hot pokers in my garden

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.

Kniphofia 'Little Maid' Photo Leonora Enking

Kniphofia ‘Little Maid’ Photo Leonora Enking

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.

Family ties
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.

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Pat Hutchison
Pat Hutchison
9 years ago

I have planted winter cheer throughput my garden, had a wonderful display and the they were ‘discovered’ by the wattle birds who own my garden. I have been tolerant of them for some years now but next year it will be a race to see who gets them – me for the house and them to swing in and gorge!

Ren Lill
Ren Lill
9 years ago

I am new to Sydney and wonder where best to buy Winter Cheer here in NSW. I have great memories of growing these in Victoria. My first plants came from Mr Norgate of Trentham over 20 years ago. I also grew a lemon lime species that I dug up from the roadside in Wallington near Wirruna Nursery. These delicate wild pokers flowered early in spring with 1m tall thin flower stems and finer foliage than Winter Cheer. A special companion to some spring flowering lemon coloured species roses. What lovely memories. Thank you.

Jennifer Stackhouse
Jennifer Stackhouse
9 years ago
Reply to  Ren Lill

I would look out for varieties of red hot pokers for sale now in retail nurseries. The other option is to buy from perennial specialists including Frogmore (formerly Norgate’s where you bought your plants 20 years ago), Lambley Nursery at Ascot near Ballarat and of course Digger’s Club. Impact Plants at Empire Bay on the NSW Central Coast also lists at least one variety of red hot poker. They have a lot of interesting plants and a cafe so is a good ‘destination’ nursery for Sydneysiders. If any GardenDrummers have seen ‘Winter Cheer’ for sale let me know. Best wishes Jennifer