On Gardening: New Year’s torch lily boldly beautiful

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 8, 2014 


Kniphofia rooperi is a cold hardy to zero and perennial from zones 7-10. The common names range from Rooper's redhot poker to East Cape poker and the fall blooming torch lily. No matter what you call it it is a great plant.


Red hot pokers or torch lilies for New Year’s Day look to be a distinct possibility for us in Savannah. Because of our coastal location I could never promise this for you, unless you live in a mild climate. What I can suggest is that if you love torch lilies in the late spring and early summer, you might want to give the fall blooming species a try in your garden.

Botanically speaking, I am referring to Kniphofia rooperi, which is a cold hardy to zero and perennial from zones 7-10. The common names range from Rooper’s red hot poker to East Cape poker and the fall blooming torch lily. No matter what you call it, it is a great plant.

The East Cape poker gives reference to its origination on the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Sometimes taxonomy strikes me as humorous as it does with this plant. Its family name has been in flux over the last few years with such as Lilliaceae and Asphodelaceae, and now may it rest in peace as it finds its position in the Xanthorrhoeaceae. Good grief! Basically what this means to you is that it’s related to other plants you may know such as the aloe, daylily and bulbine.

At the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens ours has been blooming for about 11 weeks and is just as riveting as its cousin the Kniphofia uvaria that blooms in late spring and summer. In a way, the East Cape poker may even be more beautiful, as most gardeners are totally surprised to see its flaming red-orange and yellow blossoms in the fall.

While ours started sending up the glorious 3-to-4-foot-tall blossoms in October, some report much earlier blooms and a few later. Though these still aren’t the staples at the local garden center like they will be, you will have no problem locating sources from specialty catalogues. It has been given the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in the United Kingdom, which speaks volumes and coincides with the talk going around the U.S. garden industry.

Choose a location with plenty of sun, the more the better. Fortunately the East Cape poker is not finicky when it comes to soil pH. The soil, however, should be fertile, organic, rich and very well-drained to ensure a spring return. In the warmer zones, the plants will be evergreen. In the colder areas, the foliage will return with spring growth.

The plant is so striking that as your clump grows you will rejoice and want to divide in the spring by taking offshoots or pups from the crown. Otherwise, there is little maintenance other than to deadhead or remove old flower stalks and any damaged or frozen foliage as needed in the spring.

We are growing ours close to sago palms, Cycas revoluta, which looks really good, but I know they would excel in conjunction with just about any cold-hardy palm. You could not beat having a few clumps as understory companions to the windmill palm, Tracycarpus fortunei. They also look magically at home in a partnership with ornamental grasses.

Spring is closer than you think. If you live in zones 7 and warmer, then you should consider the fall blooming East Cape poker or Torch Lily for your garden.

Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South” and “Captivating Combinations Color and Style in the Garden.”

The State is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service