How to grow kniphofias, or red hot pokers

Val Bourne / 26 June 2013 ( 27 July 2017 )

Find out how to grow kniphofias, otherwise known as red hot pokers, for vibrant summer colour. Add some vertical accents in July with these poker-like South African natives.



Kniphofias, otherwise known as red hot pokers or torch lilies, have a South African provenance and they respond to summer rainfall rather as crocosmias and agapanthus do. 

Hardiness varies and when the RHS Trial took place between 2007 and 2009 it trialled 120 and these included species and named varieties. Some succumbed in the severe winter of 2007/8. As a rule of thumb, those with thinner, grassier foliage and smaller pokers (such as ‘Little Maid’) tend to be the most vulnerable.

The RHS trial highlighted the difference in flowering times between varieties and also showed those capable of re-blooming. 16 AGMs were awarded across a range of colours. This highlighted some new pokers and rewarded traditional ones as well. Foliage was considered important as well as flower.

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When to plant kniphofias

Kniphofias should really be planted in May, June or July so that they establish some root before winter arrives.

When kniphofias bloom

Red hot pokers tend to flower between June and October, although flowering times depend on the variety.

When to deadhead

Deadhead kniphofias after flowering to encourage a succession of flowers. Tidy the foliage in spring, but leave all the leaves intact in autumn to provide winter protection.

Pests

Kniphofias have handsome foliage, but it can become shabby in winter and it also harbours slugs and snails. Frisk the foliage thoroughly every spring as snails and slugs nibble the spikes if given the chance, ruining the display.

Wildlife

In their native South Africa red hot pokers are pollinated by nectar-eating sunbirds so they produce large amounts of nectar to attract these colourful birds. This volume of nectar is also appealing to British native wildlife, such as bees, wasps and butterflies.

Red hot pokers in a summer border with heleniums foxgloves and dahlias
Red hot pokers in a summer border with heleniums foxgloves and dahlias

Grow red hot pokers with…

Substantial pokers make a statement and they mix well with later summer perennials that could include asters such as ‘Little Carlow’, perennial rudbeckias, heleniums and the refined Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’.

Red hot pokers also make good statement plants at the corner of a border, or in a gravel bed.

Kniphofias mix well with modern planting which might include Stipa gigantea, a tall shimmering grass, crocosmias, dahlias and Digitalis ferruginea - a perennial foxglove with a think spike of rusty flowers.

Don’t be afraid of orange. It blends with sunny yellow and it makes every shade of blue more dazzling.

Read our guide to flowers for an orange colour scheme

Red hot pokers in a summer border full of colour, including crocosmia, dahlias, and echinacea
Red hot pokers in a summer border full of colour, including crocosmia, dahlias, and echinacea

AGM varieties of kniphofias

Established and readily available

‘Bees’ Sunset’ AGM

Bred by the Chester seed company in 1960, with bronze-green stems that support apricot-orange flowers between June and October. (90 cm/3ft).

‘Safranvogel’ AGM

A von Zeppelin German variety from 1977, with very unusual elliptical flowers that change from soft-peachy pink to butterscotch-brown. Difficult in cold gardens. (2 -3 ft/70 cm).

‘Wrexham Buttercup’ AGM

The best yellow poker by far, bred by Bakers of Codsall in 1946, this shone in August producing all-yellow plump pokers tipped in darker yellow. (over 4ft/130cm).

‘Sunningdale Yellow’ AGM

Bred in 1968 by Sunningdale Nurseries, this was the last of the yellows to flower with a final flourish in November, although it began in June. (3ft/90cm).

‘Timothy’ AGM

Carlile’s Nursery of Twyford near Reading ( famous for the Loddon prefix) produced this coral-red poker with its slender flowers in 1976. It also has red stems. (up to 4ft/110cm).

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Newer varieties

‘Tawny King’ AGM

Brown-orange buds open to produce cream pokers with a toffee to butterscotch glow between June and October. Very different and an excellent poker. Bred by John May in 1997, but often seed -raised so it can be variable. Buy this one in flower if possible. (over 3ft/100 cm).

‘Rich Echoes’ AGM

Oblong heads in warm-orange that suffuse to butter-yellow on bronzed stems. Bred by Edmund Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers in 2006. Flowers in summer and repeats in autumn. (almost 4ft/110 cm).

Did you know...?

Kniphofias are named after Johann Hieronymus Kniphof, an 18th-century German physician and botanist. Common names include red hot poker, torch lily and knofflers.

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