Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Kniphofia - Out Of Africa A Red Hot Torch Lily

Kniphofia uvaria. Photo by Toby Hudson.
 Out Of Africa A Red Hot Torch Lily

From Africa comes a bold spear of blazing hot color to a garden near you. It's called Kniphofia (pronounced nip-HOFF-ee-ah), the Red Hot Poker or Torch Lily. Kniphofia species are native from Ethiopia to Sudan, Madagascar and South Africa, with most found in the later.

Depending on the species, long, sword-like leaves may grow to 3 feet long. Upright spikes of bright, tubular flowers may extend to 6 feet (K. multiflora). Most popular garden species grow to less than half that size. Flower color ranges from red orange to light yellow. The flower spikes inspired the names Torch Lily and Red Hot Poker.

Kniphofia is a member of the Asphodeloideae subfamily, along with Aloe. Aloe is another African native. So closely does it resemble Aloe, in fact, that it was originally given that name by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). Aloe (pronounced AL-oh) is derived from an Arabic word, Alloeh, meaning "bitter."

In Linnaeus day, taxonomy was not so standardized. There were almost as many systems as there were botanists. They'd name, correspond, argue, reorder and rename. Sometimes they'd name plants to honor other botanists. Red Hot Poker, for example, was later renamed to honor Johannes Kniphof (1704-1763). Kniphof was a botanist and Professor of Medicine at Erfurt University. German naturalist, Lorenze Oken (1779-1851) reorganized Linnaeus' Aloe (aka Kniphofia). Sometime along the way, Kniphofia was also named Tritoma because of its flower form, but the name didn't stick.

Undoubtedly the fiery flower spikes of Red Hot Poker first attracted the attention of plant explorers. But they weren't only interested in ornamental value. They were drawn by medical potential, too. Very many early botanists were also physicians. It's possible explorers also observed that Red Hot Poker was used by native Africans for treating stomach cramps, and for eradicating intestinal parasites in cattle. More recently, some species have shown potential for treating malaria.

Kniphofias thrive in full sun in USDA climate zones 5 through 10 in average, well-drained soil with pH from 6.6 to 7.5. All species are drought and heat-tolerant. Kniphofia attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. Deer will not eat it!

If soil is compacted, prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 8 inches deep, removing all traces of weeds.  If the soil is high in organic matter and friable, it may not require cultivation.  Compost may be incorporated into the soil, if necessary.  Incorporate 10-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of no more 2 lbs. per 100 square feet into the top 4 inches to 6 inches of soil. Avoid synthetic fertilizers contacting any part of your plants. 

Space the plants 12 inches to 18 inches apart. Dig planting holes into the cultivated soil a little less deep than the depth of the growing container. Place the plants into the holes and back-fill, watering as you go. Press soil around the root balls. Do not cover entirely the root balls with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed. Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 1 inch deep.

Kniphofia requires very little maintenance. In some areas Kniphofia has made itself too much at home - parts of Australia and California, for example,

Red Hot Poker is a superb plant that lends height, texture and bold color to a sunny garden. Plant it to attract hummingbirds and butterflies. It's also fine addition to African plant collections and medicinal gardens.

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