Peter Cun­dall:

On which bril­liant blooms are best

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - NEWS - with Peter Cun­dall

One African flow­er­ing peren­nial that re­mains bor­ingly un­tidy over much of the year al­ways takes us by sur­prise when it comes into flower. The clus­ters of bril­liantly-coloured flower spikes sud­denly open to dom­i­nate the gar­den. The dis­plays which can oc­cur at any time of the year – in­clud­ing mid­win­ter – last for sev­eral weeks. Fi­nally they rev­ert to a crum­pled mess of floppy, grass-like leaves to remain half-for­got­ten un­til they next time.

Kniphofia plants are called Red-hot Pok­ers be­cause some pro­duce gi­ant-sized, tight clus­ters of red-tipped bright yel­low blooms.

Most of us ab­sent-mind­edly and in­stinc­tively avoid them when hack­ing away with a hoe. Yet, de­spite their mod­est ap­pear­ance when not in flower, kniphofi- as are mar­vel­lous value in any or­na­men­tal gar­den.

They are named af­ter a German botanist J.H. Kniphof, which is why the cor­rect pro­nun­ci­a­tion is ‘nip-hof­fia’ and not the com­monly used ‘niff-offier’. Not that it mat­ters be­cause these are ex­traor­di­nar­ily beau­ti­ful plants. There are about 70 dif­fer­ent species and count­less cul­ti­vated va­ri­eties. All are re­mark­ably hardy and in most parts of Tas­ma­nia.

What makes them so ex­tra­or­di­nary, apart from har­di­ness, is the wide range of flower colours pro­duced by dif­fer­ent cul­ti­vars some of which are in bloom at any time. They are also drought re­sis­tant and ap­pear to tol­er­ate all soil types from sandy loam to heavy clay.

Some of the most spec­tac­u­lar I’ve ever seen were grow­ing in black clay and never wa­tered or given fer­tilis­ers while oth­ers, clearly thrived in sandy, coastal soils de­spite being reg­u­larly blasted by salt-laden winds. I’ve even spot­ted kniphofias grow­ing to per­fec­tion in a scree-strewn moun­tain gar­den, thou­sands of me­tres above sea level.

They can also be planted out or clumps lifted and di­vided at vir­tu­ally any time of the year, although af­ter flow­ers fade is

What makes them so ex­tra­or­di­nary, apart from har­di­ness, is the wide range of flower colours pro­duced by dif­fer­ent cul­ti­vars

prob­a­bly the best time.

The name Red-hot Poker usu­ally de­scribes some of the most com­mon, eas­ily-grown species such as K. uvaria and re­lated cul­ti­vars. They are of­ten found in cot­tage gar­dens or peren­nial borders. From the crum­pled mess of leaves shoots a clus­ter of long straight stems, some about chest high and topped with fiery, dull scar­let flower heads with soft, glow­ing yel­low lower parts.

Kniphofias also come in smaller sizes. There are nu­mer­ous dwarf forms and oth­ers grow up to 2m in height which stems as thick as pick han­dles. Here are a few va­ri­eties which may be pur­chased at any time of the year.

Apri­cot Nec­tar is a dwarf va­ri­ety which grows a lit­tle over half a me­tre and flow­ers dur­ing sum­mer, some­times for weeks. Percy’s Pride is an­other dwarf with huge greeny-gold flower heads that bloom around early sum­mer. Al­cazar bears soft, co­ral-red, slightly droop­ing flow­ers through sum­mer and into au­tumn.

All blooms make ex­cel­lent cut flow­ers if you can find vases heavy enough to hold them up.

Taller forms of these won­der­ful flow­er­ing plants in­clude K. Gran­di­flora with mas­sive late win­ter flow­ers, some al­most a third of a me­tre long on the ends of 2m long stems.

Win­ter Cheer pro­duces a bril­liant, glow­ing red dis­play right in the mid­dle the dullest, gloomi­est win­ter and is a to­tal de­light.

Maid of Or­leans car­ries creamy-white flow­ers from early spring to sum­mer and Win­ter Gold ac­tu­ally starts flow­er­ing dur­ing au­tumn and of­ten car­ries through to win­ter.

All kniphofias thrive in full sun and although the plants may grow strongly, fail to bloom or pro­duce poor, ragged flow­er­heads in too much shade.

In rea­son­able soil they need lit­tle feed­ing. Once planted they re­sent dis­tur­bance, so avoid dig­ging around them. Old, crowded and badly-con­gested clumps should be care­fully lifted, all soil blasted from the roots and di­vided dur­ing spring or late sum­mer.

Seeds ger­mi­nate read­ily in a good qual­ity seedling-rais­ing mix in flats or pots but the re­sul­tant seedlings usu­ally dif­fer, some­times quite markedly, from par­ent plants – but still carry great, colour­ful flower heads.

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