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Red Hot Poker Plants

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My picture shows 'Mango Popsicle' torch lilies, botanically known as Kniphofia.

Picture of 'Mango Popsicle' torch lilies.

David Beaulieu

Plant Taxonomy of Red Hot Poker Plants:

Plant taxonomy places red hot poker plants in the genus, Kniphofia (I use the common name to refer them generically, even though, technically, it is applied specifically to Kniphofia uvaria). They go by other common plant names as well, including "tritoma" and "torch lily"; I use these names interchangeably.

While I relate some information below that applies in a general sense to the genus, my focus is on three dwarf types that I grow. Their cultivar names are 'Pineapple Popsicle,' 'Mango Popsicle' and 'Redhot Popsicle.'

Plant Type:

Red hot poker plants are herbaceous perennials. In spite of their common name, "torch lily," they are not true lilies (i.e., they are not members of the genus, Lilium).

Characteristics of Dwarf Torch Lilies:

Terra Nova Nurseries has put out what they call a "Popsicle Series" of compact or "dwarf" red hot poker plants. As mentioned above, I grow three of them: 'Pineapple Popsicle,' 'Mango Popsicle' and 'Redhot Popsicle.' The first produces yellow flowers on its flower stalks, while the second bears mango orange flowers. The third has what Terra Nova describes as a "cinnamon red" color (although mine lacks the vibrancy shown in the picture on the nursery's website). The Popsicle Series also offers dwarf torch lilies that are and two-toned.

Except for floral color, these three dwarf torch lilies are very similar perennials. The grassy, clumping foliage reaches a height of about 1-2 feet, but when you add the flower stalk into the equation, these torch lilies will reach over 2 feet tall. 'Pineapple Popsicle' so far has grown to the greatest width of the three for me: about 2 feet. The blooms lowest down on the flower stalk dry up and fade first, turning a pale brown. This fading then progresses up the rest of the stalk, until, finally, reaching the top, which is last to lose its color.

Torch lily spreads over time via rhizomes, which suggests it has the potential to be an invasive plant in some areas.

Planting Zones for Red Hot Poker Plants:

Indigenous to South Africa, torch lilies are listed for growing in planting zones 6-9 (but can be hardy as far North as zone 5, especially with good drainage and mulch).

Sun and Soil Requirements for Red Hot Poker Plants:

Grow in full sun and in soil that is well-drained. Tough perennials, poor drainage is one of the few things that will kill them. Provide humus for nutrients. They are heat-tolerant and drought-tolerant perennials.

Uses in Landscaping:

Red hot pokers make good edging plants and surely are striking enough and blossom long enough to serve as specimen plants. Their drought resistance makes them suitable for use in rock gardens, although, considering their vigor, only for expansive rock gardens. In regions where torch lilies exhibit a proclivity to spread readily, they may make good ground covers.

Wildlife Attracted by Red Hot Poker Plants:

Torch lilies attract hummingbirds and bees, and they also function as plants that attract butterflies. But rest assured that they are deer-resistant perennials, in case you're worried that Bambi may join the love-fest.

Care for Red Hot Poker Plants:

Deadhead red hot pokers to encourage prolific flowering. For older clumps, reduce overcrowding by dividing in spring.

Mulch for winter protection at the Northern end of the suggested growing range. Likewise, wait till spring to prune back the leaves drastically; they will furnish a bit of extra protection against the cold. But it is fine to remove a few unwanted leaves here or there throughout the growing season.

Outstanding Features of Red Hot Poker Plants:

I enjoy watching the flower stalk develop. Even when it first attains some significant height, the flowers are not yet open. Instead, they pop up as a network of tightly-packed beads at the tip of the flower stalk, which, at this stage, reminds me ever so much of a rattlesnake's tail.

But what makes torch lilies so popular is their vibrant color, the spiky appearance of their flower stalks and the fact that they are long-blooming perennials.

Because they're drought-tolerant, they could easily fit into a xeriscaping plan.

Interesting Facts: Origin of Common and Latin Names, Other Types of Kniphofia:

Bemoaning how difficult it is to remember the spelling of the genus name, Allan Armitage, in Armitage's Garden Perennials (p.179), notes that Kniphofia was named "for German botanist J. H. Kniphof." Bougainvillea plants and poinsettias are other examples of plants that are named after people and that, unhappily, practically beg us to misspell them.

Armitage also observes (p.181) that the "most common species is the old-fashioned Kniphofia uvaria," the appearance of whose inflorescence (namely, "tall spires of flowers...often scarlet or fire-engine red") was the source for the common name, "red hot pokers." But Armitage also lists various cultivars, including the white-flowered 'Ice Queen.'


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