Tag Archives: red hot pokers

Tikorangi Notes: Friday 19 June, 2015

017I have a new camera and while I am still learning to use it, I doubt that I could have captured the monarchs on the montanoa with my old one, even before it decided to shuffle off the mortal coils and go where digital cameras go to die. I mentioned the Mexican tree daisy last week, asking for identification. Such are the wonders of the internet, it took less than 20 minutes for the botanical name to be supplied to me – Montanoa bipinnatifida. I am attempting to commit this to memory, although I keep getting sidetracked onto bipolar manatees which won’t do at all.
024It was a comment left on this site that had me heading down to check out the montanoa on a sunny mid-winter’s day, to find it positively dancing with monarch butterflies. “It’s a natural food source for monarch butterflies, as it also comes from Mexico”, the reader said. Given that monarchs are recorded as self-introducing to this country around 1840 and generally produce two generations a year, that means at least 350 generations have passed since the Mexican connection so I think the montanoa is perhaps better described as being an “indigenous food source for monarch butterflies in Mexico”. But a source of winter nectar, it certainly is. It was a joy to see.

The felling of the Waitara riverside pohutukawa yesterday – the ones that we had fought so hard to save – followed by heavy rain today have thwarted my plans to complete the clean-up on the second block of large Kurume azaleas that I also mentioned last week. But as I hauled away multiple barrow-loads of prunings, it occurred to me that the spending of maybe two weeks’ sustained work to complete a task that nobody else (other than Mark) will even notice has been done, represents fairly high level gardening skills. For much has actually been done. It is greatly improved but there is little evidence to show that.

From the point of view of the gardener, the hard hack and slash approach may be more rewarding in the short term – you can see exactly what you have done and it is a quick result. But as far as the garden goes, a gentler technique which leaves the overall scene refined but visually similar, masking how much has been taken out, is a different skill set. There is “cutting back” and then there is what I have heard called “blind pruning” – which is cutting back without leaving a visible trail of destruction. It takes more time and skill but is worth the effort for intensively managed areas of the garden.
056I was so discouraged when I left the scene of institutional and bureaucratic vandalism that was the Waitara pohutukawa that I had to take refuge in scenes of nature that are beyond the reach of the desecrators. I have been enjoying the sight of red hot pokers (kniphofia) on the road verges. Just an African plant that has adapted to its role as a roadside wild flower in New Zealand – a bright splash of colour in the gloom.
109And at home I raised my eyes upwards to drink in the sights of our trees. We have many large trees here, evergreen and deciduous, native and introduced. While by no means the largest of our trees, this scene of magnolias, silver birch and Queen Palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana) soothed my soul.

I admit I probably took eleventy thousand photos of the monarchs this week

I admit I probably took eleventy thousand photos of the monarchs this week

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.