How to Grow and Care for Red Hot Poker Plants

red hot poker plants

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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, though they are not true lilies (i.e., they are not members of the Liliaceae family). There are over 60 species in the Kniphofia genus, and most of the varieties available today are hybrids. Among the most popular are the dwarf cultivars that have clumping foliage reaching 1 to 2 feet high and flower stalks that stand over 2 feet tall. By comparison, one common species plant, Kniphofia uvaria, reaches 3 to 4 feet in height.

Perhaps the best feature of these plants is their long blooming period. Many varieties will brighten a garden with bright flowers for much of the summer. They are best planted in spring and will reach full height within each growing season.

Botanical Name Kniphoff
Common Name Red hot poker, torch lily, torch flower, African flame flower, Devil's poker
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size 2 to 4 feet tall and 1 to 3 feet wide
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Well-drained
Soil pH Neutral
Bloom Time Spring, Summer
Flower Color Red, yellow, orange, bi-colored
Hardiness Zones 6 to 9
Native Area South Africa

How to Grow Red Hot Poker Plants

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, finally, reaching the top, which is 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 drastically; it 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 often best to remove offsets from the perimeter of clumps rather than dividing clumps down the middle. Division is upsetting to the plant's rhizome structure, especially with mature clumps.

Light

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.

Soil

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.

Water

Kniphofia are water-wise plants and have modest water needs once established. Water frequently after planting and less frequently in subsequent seasons.

Fertilizer

Plants in nutritious soil typically do not need feeding. If the soil is poor, feed the plants with a slow-release fertilizer to promote blooms.

Temperature and Humidity

Indigenous to South Africa, red hot pokers are listed for growing in planting zones 6 through 9, but they can be hardy as far north as zone 5, especially with good drainage and mulch. In cold climates, winterize the plants by covering their crowns with mulch.

Varieties of Red Hot Poker

Kniphofia 'Red Hot Popsicle': One of the 'Popsicle' series of cultivars from Terra Nova Nurseries; a dwarf variety that grows to 2 feet tall (with flower) and 18 inches wide and has red flowers

Kniphofia 'Pineapple Popsicle': Same as above variety, with yellow flowers

Kniphofia 'Mango Popsicle': Same as above varieties, with orange flowers

Kniphofia 'Ice Queen': Lime-yellow to light-yellow flowers (sometimes described as white); grows 4 feet tall (with flower) and 2 feet wide

Kniphofia uvaria: One of the species plants in the Kniphofia genus; two-toned flowers with red at the top and yellow at the bottom; grows to 4 feet tall (with flower) and 1 foot wide

Kniphofia 'Lady Luck': An unusually tall variety that grows 5 to 5.5 feet tall and 3 to 3.5 feet wide; white flowers

Landscape Uses for Red Hot Poker Plants

Red hot pokers make good edging plants and surely are striking enough and blossom long enough to serve as specimen plants. Their drought-tolerance makes them suitable for use in rock gardens, although, considering their vigor, only for expansive rock gardens. They're also suitable for xeriscape plans.

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.

Article Sources
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  1. Garden Torches. University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

  2. Kniphofia Uvaria. Missouri Botanical Garden