Monday, 23 July 2012

Kniphofia: Not So Scary? or, My Cold Green Poker

I always thought of kniphofias as red-hot pokers. You know, orange and yellow, tall, and ugly.

kniphofia 'Green Jade'
Kniphofia 'Green Jade', Creative Commons, photo by dracophylla 
Then I bought one. Not just any one, but 'Green Jade'. Which caused a problem, because what do I call it? My cold green poker? I've always liked the American name, torch lily, but that doesn't really apply either. So I'm back at the Latin name, which is the correct way to refer to it, except no one knows what I mean by it.
To be fair, trying to spell or pronounce kniphofia can inspire a condition known as "fear of Latin names", or Latinophobia, a word I just made up, based on the ancient Greek word Latinos. The good news about kniphofia is that you have two choices: ny fo fee a, or nip ho fia

German seem to prefer k-nip-HOF-ia, which is probably correct given they were discovered by Johann Hieronymus Kniphof. The end result is that, as Robin Lane Fox says, "I doubt if any plant name has been so seldom used." (183)

But it's worth getting over both Latinophobia and any other prejudices for this lovely plant. 'Green Jade' really only has green buds. Or, more accurately, chartreuse, which open out to a creamy coloured flower tube, with just the faintest hint of lime green. 

They could be described as like pale jadestone. A more poetic way of describing its colour comes from a French blog post: When the Devil has Jaundice. Like all its tribe, 'Green Jade' has strappy green leaves, which form a day-lily like mound.  It's about four feet high in full bloom.

'Green Jade' was bred by Beth Chatto, who has also given us 'Little Maid', which has the same colours but half the height at two feet.

Provided you remember that in South Africa, where they come from, they get a lot of rain during the growing season, they are easy. I'm always slightly dubious about dry gardens with pokers in them, but a gravel garden could work with good soil underneath. They need sun, but I grew mine next to an east-facing fence, so it didn't get much light in late spring, but as the summer got on, and it got bigger, it got more and more.

They are very attractive to slugs and snails, even the flowers stems, so take appropriate precautions. The first year I had mine, it sent up one - one! - flower spike, the stem of which was almost chewed through by a snail one night. (That's how slugs and snails eat - they have teeth. Somehow the thought of slugs having teeth is unpleasant.) It was hanging by a small thread of stem that the little gastropod hadn't finished, and I cut the stem and brought it into the house, so all was not lost, but still... 

The story has a happy ending; every year after it sent up more and more flower stems and I get to enjoy them in the garden.

I liked 'Green Jade' so much that when I was filling in the orange section of my border, I bought another kniphofia, 'Tawny King'. It's a yellowy-orange colour, about four foot high, and like 'Green Jade' is much paler in bloom than in bud. Still can't warm up to those red-and-yellow ones, though.

Fox, Robin Lane, 2010: Thoughtful Gardening, Basic Books, London.

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