The Return of the Red Hot Poker

Kniphofia, combined here with tall growing Campanula lactiflora, in the classic, long herbaceous borders at Hilliers Arboretum in Hampshire last June

Kniphofia, combined here with tall growing Campanula lactiflora, in the classic, long herbaceous borders at Hilliers Arboretum in Hampshire last June

Yes of course plants are subject to fickle fashion fads but that also means that those that have fallen from favour can rise again. It is the time, dear Reader, to face the Return of the Red Hot Poker.

The path back to social acceptance is somewhat more difficult for plants which have become the wildflowers of our roadsides, sniffed at as weeds although pretty enough on their days in flower. I am not convinced the agapanthus will ever recover from this lowly position in New Zealand life but the moptop hydrangea has already undergone a revival. The red hot poker is not as ubiquitous as the derided agapanthus, so maybe there is hope. In times past there were plans for it to be a great deal more common, in one area at least.

Back in the early 1980s when a cabinet minister fell out with his leader and was demoted, he came up with a clever plan to catch public attention. It was Derek Quigley, if my memory serves me right. He wanted to plant up our roadsides thematically, to pretty-up the main roads for tourists. So Canterbury, the home of grace and tradition and the place of his electorate, was to be planted in flowering cherry trees. Classy. I am afraid I do not recall what, if anything, was suggested for the Waikato. But poor old Taranaki – its roadsides were to be planted in red hot pokers if the fallen cabinet minister had his way. He was no horticulturist.

The only reason I remember this piece of folly was because of my late mother-in-law’s horror. She was given to telling very long stories and this one took many kilometres over a long car journey. The highly abbreviated version is that when she was a child, the only sex education she received was to be given a book. Something akin to the Flower Fairies of sex education, I think, for in that book Mother was portrayed as a blushing violet. Father, as quick thinking readers may have already deduced – Father was a red hot poker.

 Maybe it is time to bring the red hot poker off the roadside and back into gardens as a valued plant

Maybe it is time to bring the red hot poker off the roadside and back into gardens as a valued plant

So, were these public planting plans to go ahead, the roadsides of my mother-in-law’s beloved Taranaki were to be carpeted from one end to the other in phallic symbols.

But we do not garden in isolation and I can tell you that kniphofia – for that is their proper name – are now trendy plants again overseas. They are easy plants that lend themselves to inclusion in herbaceous plantings, both traditional and contemporary. We saw them used extensively in the modern perennial plantings we looked at in Britain last year, valued for their upright, vertical flower form. We also did a short tour of public plantings in Canberra at Christmas where kniphofia are being mass planted to soften the urban landscape. They are a great deal more versatile than most of us realise in this country.

This attractive yellow and green kniphofia with much finer foliage fitted well in the looser plantings of Wildside Garden in Devon

This attractive yellow and green kniphofia with much finer foliage fitted well in the looser plantings of Wildside Garden in Devon

Not all red hot pokers are the same as the common orange and bi-colour ones we see on our roadsides. Theirs is a huge family with many different species and a colour range from cream, through yellows, oranges, almost pink, to deep colours which are nearly red, along with a host of bicolours. Most are evergreen with long, narrow leaves and there are smaller growing, finer leafed options for areas where you can’t accommodate a huge clump. They are African plants, growing from rhizomes and fleshy roots below ground. Give them sun and reasonable levels of moisture and they will thrive on benign neglect, usually without becoming a menace. There is also variation in flowering times, depending on the species, so it is possible to pick a range that will carry the garden through many months.

If red hot pokers have unfortunate connotations for you, try calling them by their other common names of torch lilies or knofflers. I am quite taken by the knoffler epithet. If nothing else, consider the fact these flowers are particularly rich in nectar and make a significant contribution to feeding both birds and insects. There are a fair range of different knoffler cultivars already in the country, although you may need to seek out specialist perennial nurseries to find named cultivars.

Kniphofia combine well with the grasses much favoured in modern perennial plantings – seen here at the display gardens at Blooms of Bressingham in Norfolk

Kniphofia combine well with the grasses much favoured in modern perennial plantings – seen here at the display gardens at Blooms of Bressingham in Norfolk

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

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One thought on “The Return of the Red Hot Poker

  1. Jennie

    As a child, a-way-back-now, used to love holing open hand under red hot poker flowers and tapping stem to collect, then lick nectar.

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