ONE of the most easily remembered garden plant names, red hot poker is well-known, a spectacular flower, and easy to grow. Red hot poker, or kniphofia, comes from South Africa where it grows in mountain meadows in full sunshine.
Being native to rough meadow land, red hot poker is a very robust competitor for space. Most kinds make large plants with mounds of tough foliage more than one metre across. Few weeds can compete with such a strong plant and this makes the red hot poker a very easy plant to mind.
The flower stems are strong and never need staking, another legacy of their exposed mountain origins. It is healthy, long-lived, and does not suffer from pests or disease. The only damage that commonly occurs is caused by snails climbing the flower stalks in a wet summer and feeding on the developing stems and flowers.
Red hot poker is not choosy about soil but it needs full sunlight and will not tolerate shade. It likes deep, fertile soil that is well drained but not inclined to dry out too much in summer. Dry soil leaves red hot pokers struggling to flower well.
Apart from the ordinary red hot poker, a wide range of varieties has come on sale in garden centres in recent years, with a greatly increased choice of flower colours – yellow, orange, cream and even green, sorbet colours. Because the older florets of each flower fade in colour, many kinds have two-toned flowers with a red top part and a paler yellow lower part, or an orange top and creamy base.
The smaller kinds are hybrids of species with very pretty slender flowers and narrow, grassy leaves. These are ideal for smaller gardens because the older large kinds are just too big, some standing well over two metres to the top of the flowers.
Lots of named hybrids have become available because the species interbreed easily, and some have even arisen as chance seedlings in gardens.
The names of the hybrid varieties are almost as attractive as the flowers. 'Bee's Lemon' has lemon-yellow flowers in August and September; 'Little Maid' has pale yellow flowers in July to September; 'Painted Lady', orange and cream; 'Modesta', orange and yellow; 'Alcazar', orange-red. 'Papaya Popsicle' is red with flowers from April to September.
It is easy enough to grow red hot poker from seeds, either home-collected or purchased. Most packets are mixed colours in bright attractive shades of red, yellow or orange, so it is pot-luck, but you might be lucky and get something special!