Before the Second World War kniphofias, better known as red hot pokers, were one of Britain’s most popular garden plants. They sustained gardeners’ Victorian fascination with the exotic, whilst enduring our less than alluring weather. The Dig for Victory campaign saw flower gardens ploughed up from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, making way for vegetable plots. With them went many old varieties which were never returned to cultivation.
One of the most impressive red hot pokers, and one which survived the war years, is Kniphofia rooperi. Flowering through the autumn, it is much less less widely grown than common-or-garden summer flowering cultivars. This is a pity, as K. rooperi has sufficient charm, stature and staying-power to make it a garden mainstay.
To begin with K. rooperi is evergreen, with robust, arching, dark green leaves that build into a dense, architectural clump. Then there are the flowers – chunky, bottle-brushes that start out a soft tangerine and eventually fade to lemon yellow at the tips. In low autumn light they glow and fizz like Roman candles, rising 4ft or more above the ground in close succession.
A native of South Africa, K. rooperi was was once considered doubtfully hardy, however experience now reassures garderners that it can survive unscathed in pretty much any garden in the country. Of course, like most garden plants this red hot poker likes a well drained soil and consistent moisture, plus protection from the worst of the elements. Drought may inhibit flowering. These simple conditions satisfied, feel free to light the blue touch paper and stand back for an explosive autumn display.
Photographs taken at Trebah Gardens and Trengwainton, Cornwall, in mid September.