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Some Like It Hot! Red Hot Pokers

by Martin Blow SpecialPerennials.com

Like all plantaholics I have my passion-plants that I can never get enough of. One plant-type I really get heated up about is Red Hot Pokers.

We all remember the old fashioned Red Hot Poker plants with their tall, impressive heads of flower, red at the top and yellow at the bottom and great mounds of leaves, flowering away in a neglected spot in the garden. Eye-catching they certainly are and they have come a long way from these gaudy giants with lots of colours and sizes now available for every type of garden.

Other common names for this plant such as Torch Lily and Rocket Flower are equally as apt. Kniphofia, as they are properly called come from Southern Africa.

The ones we grow in the garden largely grow on high mountains and plateaux meaning they are cold hardy although you may find plants or seeds of sub-tropical species that will need protection in winter. As a rule of thumb those with very narrow, almost chive-like leaves are less hardy.

In the past gardeners have planted pokers in the driest, sunniest part of the garden and then left them to get on with it, this comes from the misconception that they are desert plants. They will survive this but not thrive. The best treatment is plenty of sun and a rich, fertile soil with plenty of summer moisture. Here they will have more and larger flowers.

By careful selection of varieties and species it is possible to have a poker in flower from May to December, but for most gardens a few good varieties will cover the summer and autumn months.

Here are a few of my favourites.

“Timothy” is very different from the standard poker with his salmony orange flowers on 2ft / 60cm stems in mid-summer he is more suitable for a small garden.

Likewise, the cool, greenish-lemon and white flowers of “Ice Queen” create a gentle zing in the border from July through August.

The deep smouldering colour of “John Benary” heats up in August and September and again this variety is quite compact.

For me the taller varieties are one of the glories of late summer and autumn. “Tawny King” is perhaps the most striking variety with very large caramel and cream flowers on 3ft / 90cm stems from June to August.

Some pokers are long and slender adding a gracefulness to the flowers.

“Jenny Bloom” is one such with softly coloured peaches and cream coloured flowers. “Toffee-Nosed” is similar but has more distinctly caramel and white flowers.

“Fiery Fred” (apparently named after the tempestuous cricketer, Fred Truman) is tall, slender and burning with heat through July and August and a must for the hot-coloured garden.

One of the most outstanding with fatter flower heads is "Bee’s Lemon". The yellow flowers are greenish at first. The "Bees'" name comes from "Bees Nursery" of plantsman Arthur Bulley

The latest to bloom in our garden is K.linearifolia which comes into its own in late October. Our is a paler-coloured form. K.sarmentosa is known as “the winter poker” and this tries to bloom in December – failing to flower well in the garden but blooming successfully in a pot a cold greenhouse.

Pokers can be propagating by division after flowering in summer or, for late flowering ones, in late spring. Seed will be variable but does produce good plants – the colours may be a surprise! Sow on the surface of moist seed compost – do not bury the seed just press it lightly onto the surface – in late winter in warmth such as a heated propagator and transplant as soon as they are big enough to handle and then wait for the fireworks when they flower!

We usually have a good range of pokers at Plant Hunters Fairs but they do sell out fast!

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