Poker time

Red hot poker time, that is. I’ve been meaning to write about this wonderful South African native all spring. Red hot poker, or torch lily, belongs to the genus Kniphofia, of which which there are about 70 different species. Only a few of them are commonly grown here in the U.S. The most frequently seen species is Kniphofia uvaria. It comes from an area with winter rainfalls, which coincides with our weather pattern. This species is easy to distinguish from other kniphofia species because its leaves are keeled (i.e. they have a U-shaped groove).

Flower closeup

Red hot pokers are closely related to aloes but they are not succulents. In addition, they are much hardier than aloes—down to zone 6, according to some web sites. They’re not fussy about the type of soil but good drainage is a must to prevent crown rot, especially in areas with very wet winters. They need full sun to flower, and even though they will survive periods of drought, they grow much better if given regular water in the hot months.

Red hot pokers (Kniphofia uvaria) outside our front yard fence.
You can see three clumps in this photo.
This photo was taken this morning (6/6/11) and the flower spikes are almost done blooming

Red hot pokers have thick rhizomes and fleshy roots and don’t like to be disturbed or divided. Experts say that after division they will need a year or two to settle down before they bloom again. Division isn’t really needed until flower production begins to slow.

Flower spike just emerging from the foliage (April 2011)
One of the smaller clumps. This one was planted from a 4” pot two years ago. This is the first year it’s bloomed.

Here is Northern California, red hot pokers are a common sight along the coast where they have naturalized in many places. They’re not that common in inland gardens, so when I bought a bag of bare-root Kniphofia uvaria from one of the big box stores 3½ years ago, I wasn’t expecting much. I believe the bag contained six rather sad-looking chunks of rhizome. I stuck them in the ground outside the front yard fence and forgot about them. For the first couple of years we got healthy foliage but no flower spikes. Then, in year 3, we had a few flowers, and I was thrilled. Year 4 (this year) was when they finally came into their own. They’ve been producing spike after spike of brilliant two-tone flowers since April and are just now beginning to fade. I love dramatic, exotic-looking plants, and Kniphofia uvaria certainly fits the bill. Even though it only blooms 2-3 months out of the year and the foliage by itself isn’t all that attractive, I’m still happy to have five clumps now.

A few tips:

  • Remove fading flower spikes to encourage the production of more spikes.
  • Do plant red hot poker in full sun. I planted another bag of bare-root material in a semi-shady spot in our backyard, and some floppy leaves is all we ever got.
  • If you want flowers sooner, buy gallon-size plants. They should flower within a year or two. I bought one in a 4” container a couple of years back, and it flowered for the first time this year. Seed is available in stores and on the Internet, but I read that it takes many years (5-6) until you have mature plants that bloom.


Foliage—not the most stunning in the world.
It would probably be best to plant red hot poker in the middle or towards the back of the border and hide the foliage behind a more attractive plant.


  1. Early in my gardening career I coveted these, but never got around to planting. I'm not sure if they'd survive my heavy soils, and like you I'm not a fan of the blah foliage. I could probably cram one in somewhere though, and seeing your flowers I wish I had done it years ago.

    Do they attract hummingbirds or other pollinators?

  2. I had one in the front yard in Hayfork. Got it from a neighbor. Winter didn't seem to bother it!

  3. Becky, they would grow in Mt Shasta too!

    Alan, yes, they are a magnet for bees and hummingbirds. Since they stick out far above the foliage, they're like a beacon. I think that hiding the nondescript leaves is the way to go. I wish I'd done that, but our three biggest clumps are right at the front of the bed and very visible.

  4. I bought one this year for the first time. At first I thought it was a type of aloe! But it will look great among the cacti! Great info and photos!

  5. Great post on a fantastic plant Gerhard! I do love Kniphofia uvaria and all the others for the beautiful flowers (and often hot colours like Uvaria).

    Worth noting about the foliage, it's one of those plants that make a perfect crossover between lush and arid planting (they look good in both planting schemes).

    You mentioned that there's only a few types available in your area, if you can get hold of Kniphofia northiae you'd love that (or the smaller K. caulesecens), it look more like an Aloe :)

  6. Mark, I will definitely look for some other kniphofias. Nurseries stock quite a few cultivars in different colors, but I believe most of them are uvaria hybrids.

    I have an aloe called 'Grassy Lassie' and its leaves make it look like a small kniphofia. I can definitely see that the two genera are related.


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