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