What’s hotter than a red-hot Chile pepper? You guessed it – Red Hot Pokers (Kniphofia sp.). These wonderful, colorful structural plants were one of the favorite plants of Gertrude Jekyll, famous English garden designer. This very hardy plant (USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9; AHS Heat Zones 9 to 1) grows in full sun and good garden loam. Do not plant Red Hot Pokers in heavy clay soils with poor drainage or your plants will either do very poorly or just give up and die.
The common name Red Hot Poker or Torch Lily comes from the flower color, which is generally bright red or orange. Red Hot Pokers range in height from 24 to 48-inches, which makes them ideal plants for either the middle or back of the flower border. They flower in summer for several weeks so not only do these specimen plants liven up a garden, but give gardeners a great long season of bloom. In addition, they are great as a cut flower and their bright colors and plentiful nectars attract butterflies and hummingbirds.
The first winter it is essential to mulch to protect the roots. Tie the leaves together to keep the crowns warm and then add mulch around the plant. Once established, Red Hot Pokers tend to be long-lived plants and multiply readily.
By using these plants in drifts of three to five, your flower garden will have a dramatic focal point because of the brilliant colors and unusual form. When finished flowering, the foliage provides an interesting textural effect.
The main cultivars include:
‘Bressingham Comet’ has yellow flowers tipped in red that create glowing orange flower spikes from late summer to fall. This 24-inch plant fits very well in the mid-flower border. The slender flower spikes have drooping flowers, providing a presence in the garden that adds a touch of the exotic.
‘Bressingham Sunbeam’ is 24 inches tall and, as befits its name, is yellow and flame shaped. The yellow flowers are delightful with Lavandula ‘Blue Cushion’ or Aster xfrikartii ‘Flora’s Delight’.
One of the more unusual pokers is ‘Innocence’. The coloration of the spikes starts out coppery orange and changes to yellow then to cream. So during its long flowering season gardeners are delighted by its bursts of changing color.
‘Cobra’ has a hooded appearance before it opens. This flower is dangerous not because of its name, but because you will truly fall in love with it. The dark bronze changes from copper to yellow. This tall Red Hot Poker grows to 36 inches high. It can also serve as a specimen plant because its shape is so distinctive. Its dramatic silhouette with other leafy plants as contrast is truly spectacular.
‘Percy’s Pride’ got its unusual name from Percy Piper, a Blooms of Bressingham employee. The sulfur-yellow flowers with a hint of green really do resemble a torch. This 43-inch plant is one of the tallest of the species and is a great plant for the back of the flower border. As companion plants try Leucanthemum ‘Summer Snowball’ (Double Shasta Daisy), a tall (30 inches), bushy plant with fully double white flowers, and Perovskia atriplicifolia (Russian Sage) which is 36 to 48-inches tall with showy blue violet flowers and a comparable bloom season.
‘Shining Sceptre’, another great tall poker, is 39 inches tall, exhibits a vigorous growth habit, a wide flower spike and bright golden-orange flowers. This is not for those who like their flowers in pastel tones, but would rather get vibrant color in the garden.
For a sunglasses combination, add Coreopsis verticillata ‘Golden Gain’ (Threadleaf Coreopsis) with its large, golden daisy flowers on 24-inch, clump-forming plants. Its fine texture and contrasting flower form make for a truly hot combo. For a slightly different look try Hemerocallis ‘Miss Victoria. ‘The soft yellow flowers, on 22 to 25-inch scapes emit a delightful fragrance, and repeat blooms are an added bonus. Kniphofias in combination with other plants add instant eye appeal.
As you can see Kniphofias are bright beacons for the summer and early fall gardens. Their flamboyant colors, long season of bloom, ease of maintenance, use as a cut flower and ability to attract hummingbirds and butterflies makes Red Hot Poker a really HOT PLANT for gardeners.
Ms. Cohen is Adjunct Professor at Temple University, Dept. of Landscape Architecture & Horticulture, Ambler Campus, 20 years; Mid-Atlantic representative of the Perennial Plant Association; and her articles have been featured in leading consumer and gardening publications.