What must it have been like to be one of those early plant explorers? Traversing the globe, they sailed, canoed, rode any number of beasts from horses to elephants, and sometimes spent days or months trudging on foot across unfamiliar landscapes. The new plants that they found sometimes reminded them of species that grew at home, but many of them were exotic to look at and totally unlike what they were used to. One such genus from South Africa was Kniphofia.
Correctly pronounced kuh-nip-ho-fee-uh, the name honors Johann Kniphof, an 18th-century German botanist. It is commonly known as red hot poker or torch lily. These colorful plants bloom in shades from pale yellow through orange and into red. Numerous small tubular flowers droop from the top of a single stem, opening successively from the bottom to the top. The plants look rather like a clump of grass, with narrow leaves that carry tiny teeth along the edges. Kniphofia citrina is among the smaller species; its flower stalks are 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall. The giant of the genus is K. northiae. It actually forms a short trunk up to three feet in height and has wider leaves that may be five feet in length. Other species to look for are K. rooperi, whose flowers cluster in a more orbicular manner, and K. thomsonii. Native to the mountains of eastern Africa, the alpine poker has looser clusters of orange flowers. For the greatest selection of flower color, the hybrids and selections of K. uvaria are also the most well-known. Many have been named and their names are as colorful as the blooms. The majority of red hot pokers bloom in late spring through summer. The exception is ‘Christmas Cheer’ with its brilliant orange and gold flowers in the winter.
All red hot pokers need fairly consistent water to provide a good show of flowers, but require well-drained soil. The clumping varieties (all but K. rooperi) will gradually increase in size and number of blooms. Plants can be dug and divided during the warm months when they are not in bloom.