A few years back my partner’s mother gave us an offset of one of the many clivias that bask in her front porch. The lucky escapee has since languished in our bathroom, on an east facing window ledge, where it appears to be very happy. For most of the year the glossy but fairly unexciting green leaves provide a good backdrop for other foliage plants. Just as the last of the flowers fade outdoors the plant springs into action, producing several heads of exotic flowers. The standard orangey-yellow is not the most sympathetic colour, but it makes a great companion for the overwintering Aeonium “Schwarzkopf”, which otherwise looks pretty anaemic. In London we have a small plant of the rarer Clivia miniata var. citrina, what has rather more accommodating soft-yellow flowers.
Discovered by British plant hunters William Burchell and John Bowie between 1815 and 1820, the Kew botanist John Lindley named the species Clivia in 1828. This was in honour of Charlotte Percy (née Clive), Duchess of Northumberland, who was at one time governess of the future Queen Victoria. The Duchess was born into a plant-loving family and was the first person in Britain to bring clivias into flower. I suspect she had more than a little help with that achievement, but she must have been pretty chuffed all the same.
Our original offset has now outgrown a couple of pots. Clivias are happiest when they are slightly pot-bound, although, like my mother-in-law, I am not awfully fond of the thick white roots poking up through the surface of the compost. In their native South Africa and Swaziland, clivias grow on the forest floor, hence the chlorophyll-rich dark green leaves. In the UK, where we are lucky to see the sun, they seem perfectly happy in good, indirect sunlight, but they have to be kept indoors. I recall a certain envy a few years ago on spotting swathes of stunning clivias in deep shade at Le Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech. Ground cover just doesn’t come any better that.