Sunday, June 06, 2010
Red Hot Pokers
The problem of the winter garden is tackled different ways in different parts of the world. For much of the world that suffers a continental climate, the garden is wrapped up and put away for the winter. There are so few things that can cope with snowdrifts and biting cold that people who live in such climates do not expect to have anything in flower. They pull their garden inside, to ledges in their kitchens, or shelves in their conservatories, and they hibernate until the weather is a little more kind to their gardening aspirations.
In warmer parts of the world the exact opposite happens. Winter is the cooler season when plants can be grown, so gardeners approach the winter season with enthusiasm. In some parts, the summer weather is so hot and dry that plants have evolved reversed deciduous pattern – they go leafless over the summer. In other places, the summer is so wet and disease-ridden that many cool climate crops rot, and have to be sown over the cooler, drier winter period.
Then there are those of us who garden in temperate zones, who like to think we do not have bad winters, and expect our gardens to be at their best all winter long. We plant seedlings that are grown for spring display in other parts of the world – polyanthus and Primula malacoides for example – to give us colour through the winter, and we even look to some perennials to give us colour through the cooler months.
Among those we can rely on are some winter-flowering members of genera we normally think of as spring flowering, and probably the best known of those is the long familiar “Winter Cheer” Red Hot Poker. This is the stoutly performing orange-red flowering plant that is seen in many city gardens (and seemingly every country garden) from the top of the North Island to near the bottom of the South. It can be relied upon to flower from as early as June through to spring.
This is such a tough and free-growing plant that we tend to take the other members of the vast Kniphofia genus for granted, but there are some wonderfully valuable garden plants among them that deserve to be better known.
“Winter Gold” is a case in point. This is probably the best of the golden flowered forms, growing to about 1.2 meters, the same as ‘Winter Cheer’, but this time with golden flowers that start out limey green in the bud.
These two fulfil another function as well. Each flower head is actually a cluster of small tubular flowers which (usually) hang down from the long stems. These small hanging flowers are filled with nectar and over the winter they will be visited by birds, feeding on the nectar.
Overseas these plants are usually called ‘Torch Lilies’ rather than ‘Red Hot Pokers’ and that avoids the clumsy construction that we Kiwis get ourselves into when we want to talk about the other coloured varieties of Kniphofia. For example, it is faintly ridiculous to talk of a yellow ‘Red Hot Poker’, but that is what we are forced to do!
Although New Zealanders are most familiar with the tall growing forms of these South African beauties, it is in fact among the smaller flowered forms that we find the most attractive range of subtle colours. I grow a number of these dwarf varieties and they provide lots of interest in the summer and autumn garden.