Plantsman and garden writer John Hoyland chooses his favourite of the kniphofias. Photographs Jason Ingram
On a trip to South Africa I was awestruck by the sight of hundreds of incandescent flower spikes glowing in the evening light. They were the flowers of kniphofia, the aptly named red hot poker, and on that visit, I saw many more species, some with pale-lemon flowers, some soft pink but most with the vibrant orange with which the plant is most associated. Seeing them in their native habitat opened my eyes to the splendour of the genus and how wonderful they might look in a garden setting if grown among grasses and other southern hemisphere plants rather than the tatty clumps I remember from the suburban gardens of my childhood.
A genus of about 70 species of mainly evergreen perennial plants with hundreds of cultivars and hybrids, kniphofias are grown for their spikes of brightly coloured flowers and all species are found in areas of high rainfall in eastern and southern Africa, with the vast majority occurring in South Africa.
Season Flowering from April to October; most forms flower in midsummer.
Conditions Moist soil that drains well in the winter and an open, sunny situation are ideal. Established plants can tolerate periods of drought.
Hardiness Except in very wet areas most are hardy throughout Britain. A few need protection from winter cold and wet. RHS H4-6. USDA5a-9b.
Kniphofia ‘Tawny King’
© Jason Ingram
Sumptuous flowers with burnt-orange buds that fade to apricot and open creamy white. The flowers are enhanced by dark-olive stems. Flowers prolifically from July to September. 1.2m. AGM. RHS H5.
The bronze buds turn a coppery orange as they open, eventually fading to cream. It is at its best in June and July, with occasional flowers later in the season. 90cm. RHS H5. © Jason Ingram
Kniphofia ‘HE Beale’
A long-flowering hybrid that starts in early June. The flowers are rounded with apricot buds that open to a clear yellow. Very similar to Kniphofia ‘Ernest Mitchell’. 1.2m. RHS H5. © Jason Ingram
Kniphofia ‘Percy’s Pride’
A deservedly popular hybrid with luminous flower spikes. The cream buds have a green tinge that becomes paler as the flower opens. It flowers throughout July and August. 1.2m. RHS H6. © Jason Ingram
Kniphofia ‘Green Jade’
A vigorous selection made by Beth Chatto from seed collected by Cedric Morris. The striking, pale-lime flowers fade eventually to white. Gorgeous, but not as floriferous as other pokers. 1.2m. RHS H6. © Jason Ingram
Kniphofia ‘Scorched Corn’
© Jason Ingram
Long, thin tightly packed flowerheads that, if you squint, could be said to resemble corn-on-the cob. The flowers at the top of the spike are tawny-orange and fade to white. 1.5m. RHS H5.
Where to buy and see
• The Beth Chatto Gardens, Elmstead Market, Colchester, Essex CO7 7DB. Tel 01206 822007, bethchatto.co.uk
• Claire Austin Hardy Plants White Hopton Farm, Wern Lane, Sarn, Newtown, Powys SY16 4EN. Tel 01686 670342, claireaustin-hardyplants.co.uk
• Cotswold Garden Flowers Sands Lane, Badsey, Evesham, Worcestershire WR11 7EZ. Tel 01386 833849, cgf.net
• Eden Project, Bodelva, Cornwall PL24 2SG. Tel 01726 811911, edenproject.com