At this time of the year, the most cheerful splash of colour on a somewhat gloomy winter’s day comes from the ubiquitous red hot pokers that grace our roadsides. They make me smile, especially as I see them spreading and achieving what a lesser remembered Member of Parliament mooted, much to the chagrin of my late mother of law who is probably cringing in her grave.
I have told this anecdote before but I make no apology for repeating it. It returns to my memory every winter and I still think it is funny.
The MP was named Derek Quigley and he will have slipped from most people’s memories. He would have vanished from mine entirely, were it not for the kniphofia. Demoted from his Cabinet role in finance in 1981, he threw his energies – such as they were – into his minor portfolio of the day, which was tourism. International tourism was still pretty much in its infancy back then. His frightfully clever idea was to plant up the roadsides with a different plant – all exotic introductions – for each of the provinces. Canterbury, he suggested, could be themed with cherry trees. That would suit the grace, tradition, class and Old Money that some saw as characterising his home province. I don’t recall what the other provinces were to be allocated but as the man was neither horticulturist nor gardener, they would have been random plants that he knew the names of.
Taranaki, well, Taranaki was to be clothed in roadside red hot pokers, he suggested.
Enter my mother-in-law, Mimosa. She was given to lengthy anecdotes but was not without a sense of humour. To this day, I remember the car journey where she was aghast at Quigley’s plans. She regaled us with a complicated story from her childhood, replete with plenty of extraneous detail where none of us could see quite where the story was headed. We were a captive audience in the car, you understand. The upshot was that her sex education in her childhood (presumably late 1920s) began and ended with being given a book on the topic. I imagine the book to be along the lines of the Flower Fairies of Sex Education because Mother was a blushing violet; Father – he was a red hot poker.
Forty years on, Nature is achieving what Derek Quigley failed. The roadsides of North Taranaki are increasingly clothed in what were undeniably, irredeemably, inescapably phallic symbols to Mimosa.
There is little variety in the roadside plants which I assume are all just Kniphofia uvaria. In looking this up, I found that Auckland Botanic Gardens did a trial of different named cultivars to see which were the best performers there but I have no idea on how readily available these are to buy.
We noticed on our last visit to the UK in 2017 (and, sadly, that may turn out to be our very last visit) that kniphofia were very popular as garden plants. I would quite like to get hold of this pretty tawny one we saw used extensively in the elevated garden at the Barbican if anyone has seen it in New Zealand. Beyond that, we may have to make do with the red and yellow forms we have and the splendid pure yellow I showed a couple of weeks ago. The yellow will be a named form; we just don’t know the name.