Plants - Perennials

Grow fiery torch lilies

Patrick Lima
Photography by
John Scanlan

The hot looks and dramatic form of these exotic flowers have venturesome gardeners singing their praises

Gardens are more interesting for a touch of the exotic, and if you appreciate the occasional challenge, torch lilies (Kniphofia cvs.) satisfy on both fronts. Their lush, reedy foliage and spires of tubular flowers in shades of cream and yellow, apricot, orange and fiery red have a tropical look. And coming as they do from southern Africa, torch lilies are anything but a sure thing in winter-wracked climates. Still, if my and my partner's experience holds true, they may well live for years in cold Canadian gardens—some of the clumps in our Zone 4b garden are into their third decade.

The tapered shape and warm colouring of Kniphofia (pronounced knee-FOE-fee-ah) have given rise to the common names poker plant, flame flower and red-hot poker. As with many marginally hardy perennials, the secrets of success are perfectly drained soil and winter protection, either in the form of a consistent snow blanket or protective mulch. Sun for six or more hours daily is also a requisite for growing these African beauties.

Growing torch lilies
Around spring's frost-free date, plant torch lilies, either as potted young plants or bare-rooted, in soil that is naturally sandy or lightened with crumbly compost and/or sand; avoid adding peat moss and heavy-clogging manure, since both keep the ground too moist. Give each plant room—a diameter of about 60 centimetres—as crowding impedes growth and distorts the flower spikes. Choose a front-row position for shorter varieties (up to 60 centimetres) and mid-border for the taller torches, and plant low sun-loving perennials such as candytuft, catmint, creeping phlox, lavender or dwarf geraniums in front. You don't want to hide the narrow, grassy leaves, which, like a stiff daylily, remain green and attractive from May to November. With luck, you'll see a torch or two the first year; and if soil conditions are met and winter is not too fierce, clumps will grow more robust and floriferous with each passing season.

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