plant of the month
RED HOT POKER
THE KNIPHOFIA GRACILIS

Kniphofia is a large genus of plants in the Asphodelaceae family. Kniphofia species are from Africa mostly, especially South Africa and many of the popular cultivars available today originated from South African species.

The common name for all species of Kniphofia is ‘poker’ or ‘red hot poker or “torch lily” , because of the stunning flower heads which are red or orange-red in colour.

Kniphofia gracilis is a popular garden plant in both English and South African gardens and has been for well over a hundred and fifty years.
This plant makes a spectacular addition to any garden.

The plant has extensive distribution through the province of KwaZulu Natal. It extends through the grasslands from Zululand down to Pondoland, and from the coast to the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountain Range.

It is hardy, thanks to its deciduous nature, and can survive even dramatic drops in temperature, despite its hot and balmy natural habitat.
The flowers look like bottlebrush-shaped heads which resemble the glowing embers in flaming fires – hence the name ‘Red Hot Poker’.

Standing approximately 1m tall when fully grown, Kniphophia gracilis is a perennial flowering plant with a flower stalk that develops from the centre of the arching, grass- or strap-like leaves in midsummer and stand around 1.5m tall.

The flowers are made up of closely packed buds that open to shades varying from yellow to orange and a bright red with some flower spikes creating a lovely two-tone effect.

These are a great addition when planted in between grasses and low growing shrubs, planted en masse on their own, or paired with Aloes which come into flower at similar times of the year. The plant starts to flower in midsummer and come into their own Mid-end Autumn and into winter (depending on your area).

I have found that the longer the plants are in the ground the more spectacular the flowering. My pokers have been in the ground for the best part of 6 years and each year seem to produce more blooms both in number and size.

The plants derive their nourishment from rhizomes growing well below ground level and it is from these rhizomes that the leaves arise, long spikey or strap-like leaves that grow in attractive clumps.
Soil requirements are simple: moist, humus-rich, well-drained soil, although they will tolerate sandy and chalky soil making them ideal in coastal gardens. Plant in a full sun position for maximum flowering.

Propagation is by division of the rhizomes after flowering or when clumps become overcrowded, or plant from seed.
Although easily grown from seed, plants grown from seed will take up to two years to flower.
The leaves can break off easily so when lifting and dividing, do keep this in mind to avoid unnecessary damage to the plant.

Aside from its obvious decorative value, Kniphofia attract many nectar-loving insects including bees. Birds that are attracted to the flower are sunbirds which happily pollinate the lovely flowers.
According to Pitta Joffe in her book “Creative Gardening with Indigenous Plants”, Kniphofia attract both white- and black bellied sunbirds, so they are a great addition to any ‘bird garden’.
I can personally attest to their ability to attract sunbirds which flock to my clump of Kniphofia in the heart of uMhlanga.

A plant highly recommended for any sunny garden needing a vivid splash of autumn and winter color!

References:

  • Creative Gardening with Indigenous Plants (A South African Guide) ~ by Pippa Joffee
  • PlantzAfrica.com website by SANBI.
  • SA-Venus.com