Tag Archives: kniphofia

The cabinet minister who fell from grace, my late mother-in-law and phallic symbols

Lighting up the winter gloom on the North Taranaki roadsides

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.

Father 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.

Chalk a victory up for the former cabinet minister, even though he had nothing to do with this scene today

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.

Tawny kniphofia at the Barbican in London

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.

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.

Perennials for late summer colour

Annuals are plants that are done and dusted in the same year. Biennials flower in their second year, set seed and die. Perennials simply last more than two years. It is some herbaceous perennials that give us most colour in the late summer garden, at a time when many gardens can be looking a little jaded, dull and green.

Kniphofia - worth a second look

Kniphofia – worth a second look

Kniphofia might have had a better lot in the life of NZ gardens if we called them by some of their other common names. Knofflers sound so much more whimsical, torch lilies more exotic but alas we usually refer to them as the less attractive red hot pokers and treat them as low grade roadside plants. Not all kniphofia are the same – there are tall ones, short ones, yellows, bicolours, deciduous, evergreen and finer foliaged options. Don’t overlook them for late summer colour.

Sedums - good bee and butterfly food

Sedums – good bee and butterfly food

Sedums are not the world’s most exciting plant, in my humble opinion, but they put on a great late summer display and feed the bees. You can delay the flowering by snipping off the early growths – called the Chelsea chop. It forces the plant to set new growing and flowering stems which tend to be a little more compact, avoiding that tendency to fall apart. I see sedums have technically been reclassified now as hylotelephium but my chances of remembering that are not great. The white one shown here is S. (or H.) spectabile ‘Stardust’ while the pink one ‘Meteor’. These die back to ground level in late autumn and benefit from digging and dividing every few years.

Coreopsis 'Moonbeam' flowers for a long time through summer without needing deadheading

Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’ flowers for a long time through summer without needing deadheading

There is a delightful simplicity to daisy flowers and Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’ is no exception. From a flat mat of tiny leaves hugging ground level, it then grows to form a loose mound covered in the prettiest of soft yellow flowers over many weeks at this time. It is perfect for full sun, especially where you want a plant at the front to gently festoon over the edge. There are a host of different coreopsis, originating from North American wild flowers. Some are more perennial than others which are often treated as annuals. ‘Moonbeam’ is fully perennial and easy to increase by division.

This aster is a lovely colour but it needs lifting and dividing every year or two

This aster is a lovely colour but it needs lifting and dividing every year or two

I have a love affair with blue and lilac flowers so this aster never fails to please me. Despite its hugely cumbersome name of Aster novi-belgii ‘Professor Anton Kippenberg’, it too has its roots in the North American wild flowers. If you trace both the coreopsis and the aster back, they are in same family of asteraceae. It is easy to grow, so vigorous in fact that I find it best if it is lifted and divided every two years. It responds with renewed enthusiasm and gives even more flowers than when left congested. In winter, it dies down to a flat mat of foliage.

Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'

Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’

Dahlias. I wrote about raising dahlias from seed last week and there is little doubt that our late summer gardens would be poorer for their absence. This is an oldie but a goodie – the Bish, or Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ with pure red flowers and attractive dark foliage. NZ plant breeder Keith Hammett has done a lot of work with dahlias and we are lucky in this country to have a wide range of new varieties to choose from as well.

Showy not subtle, the cannas

Showy not subtle, the cannas

I admit cannas, often referred to as canna lilies, are not my favourite plant. I find their flowers a bit scruffy and the showy foliage a bit over the top but there is no doubt they make a splendid display where something big and bold is desired. Should famine strike, you can apparently eat the rhizome or harvest the young growth. In winter, it all dies away to absolutely nothing visible, to return again the following summer.

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