Pokers are tough, timeless and quite spectacular

Picture courtesy entireleaves from flickrPicture courtesy entireleaves from flickrPoker plants are esteemed throughout the world and these proudly South African plants are a familiar sight in many of our gardens, parks and public spaces. They grow easily throughout the country and are essential in wildlife gardens. Read more about pokers and how to grow them in the garden below.

In South Africa pokers go by many names, including: Red Hot Poker, Vuurpyle, Winter Poker, Rooper's Red Hot Poker, Spring Poker, and Yellow Dainty Poker. This genus of about 70 species is distributed in eastern and southern Africa, with one species in Madagascar and another in southern Arabia.

A few species are deciduous but most are evergreen and common at higher elevations, although some can be found near the coast.  The Herbaceous species go dormant in winter and have narrow, grass-like leaves, varying in length from 10cm to 1m long, while the evergreen species have broader, strap-shaped foliage up to 1.5m long.

There are autumn and winter, and spring and summer flowering species, which help to extend the season in the garden. The flower heads consist of clusters of tubular flowers, arranged in inflorescences that vary from cylindrical and elongated, to more compact ball shapes. Most are red and bright orange when immature, and the flowers of some species change to bright yellow or even white as they mature, giving that striking bicolour effect.

The close affinity pokers have with aloes is quite obvious and both are classified in the family Asphodelaceae. However, whereas aloes have succulent leaves, Kniphofia has channelled, fibrous leaves which are almost always V-shaped in cross section. The plants derive their nourishment from rhizomes growing well below ground level and it is from these rhizomes that the leaves arise.

Kniphofia was first described in 1794 and is named after Johan Kniphof, an 18th-century German physician and botanist who finished his magnum opus "Botanica in originali" in 1733. While many botanists have contributed to our knowledge and understanding of the various species of Kniphofia, there is still a lot of work to be done, as the last full revision of the genus was published in the Botanical Research Institute’s Bothalia, by Dr LE Codd in 1968, where he lists 45 Kniphofia species.

It is really sad that this plant seems to be appreciated more overseas than it is here at home, and there are many gorgeous varieties available to gardeners in other countries that you would struggle to find here, so consider ordering online as seed is available from other countries like the UK.  Some species may be available from our specialist wildflower nurseries, so do your homework to try to find them.

Five species occur in the Western Cape, including Kniphofia sarmentosa which grows wild in the drier areas of the Hex River and the western Karoo mountains, and which was one of the first Kniphofia to be discovered by eighteenth century plant explorers. The 60 to 90cm tall, red and orange flower spikes appear in mid-winter to mid spring, and early botanical explorers and collectors were so impressed they took seed home and eventually, after lots of breeding, hybrid red hot pokers were introduced into Europe, where they rapidly became popular garden subjects.

Click here to see Google images of Kniphofia sarmentosa 

Although red hot pokers are most often associated with flowers of the open African veld, where they can grow singly, or in dense clusters making spectacular massed displays at flowering time, many species prefer moist wetlands, seeps and vleis. Species that densely populate vleis and put on a spectacular display when in full bloom include Kniphofia linearifolia which occurs at lower elevations, and Kniphofia caulescens, which is found at high altitudes in the Drakensberg and Lesotho, and flowers in January.

Click here to see Google images of Kniphofia linearifolia

Click here to see Google images of Kniphofia caulescens

Some of the smaller species occur in high grasslands and are exquisitely dainty, like the tiny Kniphofia triangularis which is widespread in damp spots at altitudes above 1 200m. It has lovely grass-like leaves and bright, orange-red flowers that don’t change colour as the flowers mature. Another small species, Kniphofia thodei, changes colour from red to white as the flowers mature, providing a beautiful contrast with its red and white heads, making it one of the loveliest of the genus. The small yellow dainty poker (Kniphofia pauciflora) grows about 30cm tall, with grass-like foliage and lovely yellow flower spikes in spring and summer.

Click here to see Google images of Kniphofia triangularis

Click here to see Google images of Kniphofia thodei

Click here to see Google images of Kniphofia pauciflora

Mountain species like Kniphofia northiae, which is distributed from near Hogsback through the southern Drakensberg to Lesotho, is a spectacularly large architectural plant with tough, broad, greyish leaves and flower spikes up to 1.7m tall in November. The flowers are stubby and stout, and a muted red and yellow. Kniphofia bruceae is probably the largest in the genus, and this amazing plant produces flower stems up to 2.5m tall. It’s rare and confined to bush-clad hillsides in the Komga and Kei Road district.

Click here to see Google images of Kniphofia northiae

Click here to see Google images of Kniphofia bruceae

Further north in KwaZulu-Natal you will find Kniphofia tysonii, and this autumn flowering beauty is a difficult one to overlook in the garden as it is also one of the largest kniphofias. It grows vigorously, producing robust, vigorous clumps of wide, strappy, yellow-green to dull-green leaves, standing beneath stout, upright stems up to 2m tall, which hold the dark orange-red buds which open up to fat, light orange-yellow and lime-green flowers . Its range extends into Swaziland, and this aloe can be surprisingly tough and hardy, and in a severe winter it will be cut to the ground but invariably shoots up again next spring. It provides massive quantities of nectar and pollen at a valuable late time of the year for bees and many other pollinating insects.

Click here to see Google images of Kniphofia tysonii

Kniphofia uvaria produces its cheerful red and yellow flower spikes, up to 1.2m tall in autumn. It is widespread, occurring from near Cape Town in the Western Cape through to the Eastern Cape, where it thrives in damp areas. It also flowers profusely at any time after wild fires. Other species like the beautiful white flowering Kniphofia acraea can only be found in the high mountains of the Cradock and Somerset East districts and nowhere else.

Click here to see Google images of Kniphofia uvaria

Click here to see Google images of the beautiful white flowering Kniphofia acraea

The red hot poker (Kniphofia praecox) occurs from Knysna eastwards, and must be the most popular and widely planted garden poker because of the glorious display it puts on in winter. In the wild it occurs from Knysna eastwards, and its beautiful flowers are borne on stalks that tower above the foliage and can reach up to 1m. The flower buds are reddish-orange and as the flowers unfurl and open they turn yellow. This, together with its long, strap-like leaves that are folded in a clump, makes the red hot poker impossible to ignore. It is very hardy and grows fast in full sun or light shade, doing well in moist garden beds or in wetland areas.

Click here to see Google images of Kniphofia praecox

Rooper's Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia rooperi) is found further east, near East London and along the Wild Coast. It flowers in spring, producing 1 to 1.7m tall flowering stems with unmistakable round flower heads, with reddish-orange buds that turn yellow as they open.

Click here to see Google images of Kniphofia rooperi

Kniphofia 'Amsterdam' Picture courtesy manuel m. v. from flickrKniphofia 'Amsterdam' Picture courtesy manuel m. v. from flickrIn the Garden & Home:

Because these plants multiply easily and form large clumps, they make a striking statement in the garden even when not in bloom, and when in full bloom their tall and colourful spires always attract attention.  Pokers are invaluable for brightening up dreary winter gardens, and because they also do well in pots they can be incorporated into even small gardens. The flowering spikes make striking cut flowers, so be sure to bring their beauty indoors, as doing so will not hurt your plants and will actually encourage the production of more blossoms.

The flowers are adapted to sunbird pollination and the malachite sunbird (Nectarinia famosa) is a familiar sight around the flowers, as well as the black-headed oriole (Oriolus larvatus).The Table Mountain beauty butterfly (Aeropetes tulbaghia) is always attracted to red flowers, and is often seen sucking nectar on pokers. Bees are attracted like magnets, and other unexpected nectarivorous guests may include reptiles, and mammals, notably various species of bats.

Click here to see Google images of the malachite sunbird.

Click here to see Google images of the black-headed oriole 

Click here to see Google images of the Table Mountain beauty butterfly.

Pokers are so easy to grow and very versatile, looking exceptionally pretty planted between grasses and aloes in grassland gardens, and just as effective in tropical looking and ultra-modern designs. The larger species are wonderful architectural plants in the garden, and because they form dense clumps, they look spectacular in mass plantings.

It goes without saying that pokers are a ‘must-have’ for wildlife gardens large and small, and we need to use them a lot more, not only for the beauty they bring us, but to support our wildlife which is under much strain. Let us bring these beauties back to their rightful place in our gardens, by asking our local garden centres to supply them – if there is a demand they will bring them back in a big way. Recent breeding work overseas has resulted in a larger range and improved colours available to gardeners there, with smaller habits, neater foliage, and colours ranging from red and orange through yellow to green and even brown and pink.

Kniphofia praecox. Picture courtesy yewchan from flickrKniphofia praecox. Picture courtesy yewchan from flickrCultivation/Propagation:

Pokers can be grown throughout South Africa as they are tough as nails, handling frost and conditions at the coast just as well. They love full sun, especially if growing in moist areas, but they will also take some shade. 

In the garden they adapt to most soils, including clay and loam as long as it drains well.  Add some bone meal, to strengthen the root system and to encourage the dense clumps to form quickly, and if your soil is very sandy and poor, adding lots of compost will encourage more lush growth and also help to conserve moisture. Very heavy clay soil can be amended by adding lots of washed river sand (available from garden centres) as well as by adding finely ground bark, decomposed manure, or compost to improve drainage. Raised beds also work well.

Feed with an organic fertiliser like 3:1:5, or an equivalent. The autumn and winter flowering types can be fed in late summer, and the spring and summer bloomers are fed in late winter or early spring. If watered well pokers will grow quickly, however they can also be very drought hardy, and during prolonged drought when they cannot be watered in the garden, they will become completely dormant and appear to have disappeared, only to reappear again once the rains return.

To keep the clumps good looking, cut out unsightly leaves as required.  After blooming has finished for the season, cut down the spent flower spikes but leave the foliage in place. The leaves will continue to gather sunlight to create food through photosynthesis, strengthening the plant for the next season of growth. When the leaves turn yellow and die back on the deciduous types, you can remove the dry foliage, mulch the soil, and allow the plants to rest before the next growth cycle begins.

Although some modern seed mixes have been developed that will flower from seed in their first year, for the sake of speed pokers are generally purchased as pot-grown plants. If you plan to purchase seeds to propagate, or wish to collect your own seed to sow, this is quite easy as the entire flower of the red hot poker is filled with seeds. Cut the flower heads as they begin to fade and let them dry thoroughly for at least 24 hours. Break the florets open and let the seeds drop into a container and store in a cool and dry place until you are ready to sow. You can sow seeds directly into the garden or you can sow into pots or trays that are fairly deep as red hot pokers form deep roots. Keep them in good quality potting soil which is moist but not soggy, and in soil temperatures around 25°C the plants should germinate within 28 days or so.

The clumps can be divided every 4 to 5 years, but only when they are very dense. In cold-winter regions, division is done in spring, and in warmer climates they are divided as soon as they have finished blooming.

 Picture courtesy Crowcombe Al from flickr Picture courtesy Crowcombe Al from flickrProblems, Pests & Diseases:

Kniphofias generally suffer from very few pests and diseases, but watch out for slugs and snails, and especially so when the flower spikes emerge as these are the most vulnerable parts of the plant.

Aphids can sometimes attack the flower heads, but because we also plant pokers to support our wildlife, do not use poisons, but rather spray the offenders off with a jet of water, or wait for the ladybirds to arrive and gobble them up. It is astounding how many aphids a single ladybird can consume in a day.

Root rots like Fusarium and Phytophthera can occasionally affect pokers. Symptoms initially resemble those of drought stress and include wilting and dull-coloured leaves. Once rot has spread to the crown of the plant, its leaves will pull away easily. Dig up and destroy affected plants, and do not plant kniphofias, or any other plant that is susceptible to rots in the same spot for several years.

Warning:

While it's not recommended for you or your pets to consume this plant, there are no toxic parts, and according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), it is non-toxic to horses, dogs, and cats. One concern of ingestion, especially in larger quantities, is calcium oxalate. This substance is a leading cause of kidney stones and found in a wide range of garden plants.