Friday, June 5, 2009


Red Hot Poker is the common name for Kniphofia (nee-FOF-ee-a). Not all ‘Red Hot Pokers’ are of that colour, for nowadays there are hybrids in white, yellow, pale orange and many shades in between.  

The true Kniphofia are indigenous to Africa  — there are approximately 70 species in Africa, and of these 47 occur in the eastern parts of South Africa.  One will often find them growing in places as far flung as the Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga provinces of South Africa. The one thing many have in common, even though some are 45 cm high and others are a massive 2 m is the need for good drainage.

Their roots penetrate to a great depth to find all they need even in poor soil. I have seen plants killed by kindness by applying manure and compost in the hope of feeding them well. One exception is Kniphofia ensipholia also known as Torch Lily. This white flowering plant is found growing naturally along watercourses, usually on marshy soil where water is abundant. It enjoys wet feet though in cultivation it can be grown in normal garden soil if enough water is provided.

Red Hot Pokers also prefer to be left alone for several years at a stretch and if planting or dividing one must be careful to avoid roots becoming dry through exposure, and by making a good deep hole so they are not bent or bunched after insertion. Spring is the best time for moving these plants.

Having an overall stately appearance, the taller growing kinds especially, are best grown in some isolation or with very much smaller plants in front so as not to detract from their impressive display.

Two of the most popular indigenous species growing in South African gardens are Kniphofia gracilis and Kniphofia linearrifolia.

K. gracilis is particularly useful when planted winter / spring flowering Watsonias that become dormant in summer.  The plant is easily grown from seed and will flower in the second year. Sow the seeds in a seed tray filled with a commercial seedling mixture and cover with with about 2mm of the mixture. Water well and keep the seeds in a shady spot until the seeds germinate in about two weeks. When the plants have about three leaves transfer them to bags to grow until they are sturdy. They can then be planted into the garden in a sunny, well drained position.

K. linearifolia grows well in rich soil in an open, sunny position or partial shade. It may be grown from seeds, which may take up to six weeks to germinate. Seeds may be sown in trays at anytime from spring to autumn. The seedlings may then be planted into the garden when they are 5-6 months old or 150 mm high and should be kept moist at all times.

The marsh poker can also be propagated from dividing large clumps, which spread by means of rhizomes. They may be lifted from the soil and divided with a sharp spade. Plant them in a well-composted growing mix (in a pot or straight into the ground) and water well. They should be kept moist until they are well established. The younger rhizomes respond well to division, whereas the older ones might struggle a bit, but can establish themselves.

Kniphofia linearifolia makes a brilliant display in a garden and the flowers last for a long time. The showy, bright-coloured flowers are ideal for adding a splash of colour to an area or making a bold statement. This plant can be used at the back of a mixed flower border, in groups in the front of a shrub border, or lining a long driveway. Flowers of this species also make excellent cut flowers.

Red Hot Pokers attract nectar feeding birds such as sugarbirds and sunbirds to the garden. They also attract bees and other insects which pollinate the flowers.

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