Red hot pokers (Kniphofia) are herbaceous perennials prized for their tall, showstopping flower spikes in bright red, orange, yellow, and other colors. They are also commonly known as torch lilies, and though they do share some characteristics they are not true lilies (i.e., they are not members of the Liliaceae family).
There are more than 60 species in the Kniphofia genus, and most varieties available today are hybrids. Among the most popular are the dwarf cultivars that have clumping foliage reaching one to two feet high and flower stalks that stand over two feet tall. By comparison, one common species, Kniphofia uvaria, reaches 3 to 4 feet in height.
Being rhizomatous, red hot pokers can be aggressive growers in favorable conditions; they are even considered invasive in some areas. They are attractive to hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies but, fortunately, not to deer.
|Common Name||Red hot poker, torch lily, torch flower, African flame flower, Devil's poker|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous, perennial|
|Mature Size||3-4 ft. tall, 2-3 ft. wide|
|Bloom Time||Spring, summer|
|Flower Color||Red, yellow, orange|
|Native Area||South Africa|
Red Hot Poker Plant Care
This repeat-bloomer benefits from deadheading to encourage prolific flowering. Blooms lowest down on the flower stalk dry up and fade first, turning a pale brown. This fading then progresses up the rest of the stalk until reaching the top bloom which is the last to lose its color.
If you live on the colder side of the growing range, mulch your plants for winter protection and wait until spring to prune back the foliage. The leaves will furnish a bit of extra protection against the cold. You can also bind the leaves together to create a protective cover for the plant's crown (otherwise, it's fine to remove a few unwanted leaves here or there throughout the growing season).
In spring, prior to the growing season, trim the foliage base to a few inches above the ground to give the plant a fresh start for the growth ahead.
Red hot pokers spread via rhizomes, eventually forming clumps that can become overcrowded. You can divide them in spring to minimize overcrowding, but it's best to remove offsets from the perimeter of clumps rather than dividing clumps down the middle. Division can damage the plant's bloom cycle, especially with mature clumps.
In some areas, this plant spreads rapidly through aggressive rhizomes. Currently, it is considered invasive in California and Oregon. Please see the Invasive Plant Atlas for more information.
Grow your red hot poker plants in full sun for the best blooms. They will tolerate some shade and can benefit from afternoon shade in climates with hot summers.
These plants need soil that drains well. They are generally tough perennials, but poor drainage is one of the few things that will kill them. Damp soil is particularly problematic in winter, as it promotes root rot.
Kniphofia has modest water needs once established. Water frequently after planting and less frequently in subsequent seasons.
Temperature and Humidity
Indigenous to South Africa, red hot pokers can be hardy as far north as zone 5, especially with good drainage and mulch, through zone 9. In cold climates, winterize the plants by covering their crowns with mulch.
Plants in nutritious soil typically do not need feeding. If the soil is poor, feed with a slow-release fertilizer to promote blooms.
Types of Red Hot Poker
- 'Red Hot Popsicle': One of the 'Popsicle' series of cultivars; a dwarf variety that grows to two feet tall (with flower) and 18 inches wide with red flowers
- 'Pineapple Popsicle': Same as the above variety, with yellow flowers
- 'Mango Popsicle': Also same as the above varieties, with orange flowers
- 'Ice Queen': Lime-yellow to light-yellow flowers (sometimes described as white); grows four feet tall (with flower) and two feet wide
- 'Lady Luck': An unusually tall variety that grows about 5 feet tall and about 3 feet wide with white flowers
When flowers begin to fade, simply cut them away from the stem with a sharp pair of garden shears. Cut them about one-half inch below the flowers.
Propagating Red Hot Poker
Red hot poker plants can be propagated by division or seeds. To divide, simply lift the plants from the ground and tease the clumps apart with your fingers. They can be replanted immediately.
How to Grow Red Hot Poker Plants From Seed
The entire flower of the red hot poker is filled with seeds. Cut the flower heads as they begin to fade and let them dry thoroughly for at least 24 hours. Break open the florets and let the seeds drop into a container. Place the seeds in the refrigerator for one month.
Sow the seeds indoors about six to eight weeks before you intend to plant them in the ground. Use pots that are several inches deep, as red hot poker plants form a long taproot. Keep them in good quality potting soil, keep that soil moist, and keep the temperature between 70 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Plants should germinate within 28 days or so.
In warmer areas, you can sow the seeds directly into the garden.
Protecting red hot poker plants for the winter is simple; in colder climates, simply cover the plants with an insulating layer of mulch. Remove the mulch when spring rolls around.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
Thrips may appear in some areas for red hot poker plants, though the genus experiences no other significant pest or disease problems.
How to Get Red Hot Poker to Bloom
If your plant is not blooming, consider where it's planted. Remember that full sun is necessary; Have other plants grown enough that they now create shade? Look at the crown of the plant as well. It should be buried no more than three inches deep in the soil.
Remove all foliage down to the base of the plant in the fall. It should bloom in the spring. If not, it's time to dig up the plant and divide the clumps to give it more room to grow.
What are alternatives to red hot poker plants?
Gaillardia, also known as blanket flower, is a great alternative to red hot poker, especially in areas where red hot poker is considered invasive.
Can red hot poker grow indoors?
Dwarf varieties of red hot poker can be grown indoors. Keep in mind that these plants will need regular division to stay healthy in pots, and you might not get as many blooms as you would if the plant were outdoors.
How long can red hot poker live?
This plant needs to be divided every few years, extending its lifespan by avoiding overcrowding.
Garden Torches. University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Kniphofia uvaria. Missouri Botanical Garden.