Lady Charlotte Florentine Clive, the duchess of Northumberland in the early 1800s (and granddaughter of Major General Robert Clive-“Clive of India”), has been immortalized in the genus of hardy bulbous plants, Clivia. Her estate, Syon House, complete with conservatory, was just across the Thames from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Lady Clive had received some of the first plants of the new genus shortly after it was introduced from South Africa and was successfully growing them there, so the naturalist John Lindley named them in her honor. Several more species were discovered and named in the next few decades, with C. miniata being the immediate favorite. Nurserymen in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands, as well as Britain, began propagating and selecting the best forms and colors for distribution.
It’s not hard to imagine why they were such an instant success; clivias are show-stoppers when they are in bloom. This South African native has glossy strap-shaped, evergreen leaves that grow from bulbous underground stems and form clumps as many as two or three feet across. One sturdy, almost succulent flower stalk emerges from the middle in late spring. The stem is topped with a starburst of short branches, from 12-20, each supporting an orange trumpet-shaped flower. One such stem makes a whole posy on its own. Decorative red berries follow from the few flowers that have been pollinated. Most selections have a butter yellow blotch at the base of the petals, giving them a heart of gold that seems to glow. Old standbys, the French and Belgian hybrids, as they became known, have deep orange flowers and broad leaves.
The latest craze has been to perfect an all-yellow clivia and premium prices have been paid for the early successes in this attempt. Joe Solomone, a California enthusiast, has been in the forefront of the movement. He has released some lovely pastel orange and salmon clivias as well as stunning yellow and deep yellow varieties. With advancing time, yellow clivias are coming down in price as their propagation makes them less and less rare. The next Holy Grail is a pure white clivia, and the number of lovely pale yellow ones that have resulted in that quest are now also becoming more available. Variegation in leaves is also a sought-after trait. The broad leaves may be striped with white or cream to add further interest. Hybridizers in China and Japan have been leaders in this trend, where, although outdoor temperatures are not conducive to growing clivias year ’round, dwarf varieties have become popular house plants. And, of course, South Africa has a number of dedicated growers who are pushing the color lines along with many excellent varieties.
There are a couple of other species of Clivia that are worth looking for and including in the shade garden. C. caulescens has narrow, longer leaves than the relatively stocky C. miniata. The flowers are also narrowly tubular and droop gracefully atop their tall stalks (up to four feet or more). They are pale orange with light green tips and appear in summer. C. nobilis is another species with leaves that are bluntly rounded. Flowers are orange with green edges and may be twice as abundant per stalk.
Clivias thrive in partial to full shade and tolerate fairly dry conditions, making them great candidates for those difficult dry shade areas. Unfussy about fertilizers, they actually prefer to be overcrowded and more-or-less neglected. Plant bulbs about two feet apart and let them fill in the intervening space. It may take them a few years to reach their full bloom potential. They also grow well in containers and can brighten dark corners on patios and decks. Clivias are not hardy and suffer damage from frost. Site them in protected areas or move containers indoors during cold snaps. Slugs and snails hide among their leaves and crawl up to eat the tender flowers, so be vigilant and pick them off or use an organic bait formulated from iron phosphate.
Harold Koopowitz, a research botanist and professor at UC Irvine has published a beautiful book chock full of information on hybridization of clivia species. It is lavishly illustrated with fantastic photographs by James Comstock. There is also a Clivia Society to bring enthusiasts from all around the world together. Lady Clive was certainly onto something when she devoted space in her garden to these versatile and beautiful bulbs.