Rick Gush
January 7, 2011

Red Hot Poker plants

Photo by Rick Gush

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The Red Hot Poker plants popping up in my garden are a welcome relief from the dull, dreary weather that hits Rapallo, Italy, this time of year.

It’s gray-weather time here in Rapallo, Italy, and on good days we all walk around wearing long underwear and a bunch of jackets. I haven’t worked in the garden for at least a month now because it’s not as much fun when everything is cold and wet.

But there is one large ray of sunshine beaming into this picture, and that is the fact that the Red Hot Poker plants are all in full bloom; their big, orange and yellow flowers light up the hillside like an army of torches. I’ve been trying to propagate these perennials and spread them across the garden, and it looks like the strategy is paying off.

I estimate that we have more than a hundred flowers in the garden this winter. Not too bad for a single shoot that I appropriated from the neighbor’s condominium garden a few years ago. I’ll bet when all the little clumps mature in a few years we’ll have several hundred flowers to light up the dreary winter garden. Perhaps the local air traffic will be able to use our garden as a reference point on foggy days.  

Red Hot Poker plants are correctly known as Kniphofia uvaria these days, but back when I was a young nurseryman they were still called Tritoma uvaria. I think it was back in the late 1960s when the Botanical Congress decided the name had to be changed, because a genus of beetles had a prior claim to the name Tritoma. Sort of like when Trachelospermum (star jasmine) became Rhynchospermum in the 1970s, and all the nurseries had to change their labeling and all the garden books had to change their text for star jasmine.  

These plants are most commonly called Red Hot Poker, partially because that’s what they look like, but also because lots of people seem to have trouble pronouncing Kniphofia. The correct pronunciation is knife-oh-fee-ahh. Perhaps four syllables are too much in this fast paced world.  

Kniphofia varieties exist in a number of different flower colors, from yellow to red to green, but the big orange and yellow flowers that we’re growing are by far the most common and are probably the descendants of the Pfitzer variety plants that a German nurseryman developed in the 19th century.

I’m always amused to know that while I’m coddling all my Kniphofia, websites in South Africa and Australia continue to offer advice as to how to control this pestiferous weed. I also chuckle at how all the garden catalogs, even those here in Italy, talk about how Kniphofia will bloom every summer. I do, in fact, see Kniphofia blooming in other people’s gardens in the summer, and back in California, that’s they way they behave. I’m not at all sure why mine bloom in December and January, but on these grey days, I’m certainly happy with the results.

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