Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Queen of torch lilies: Kniphofia caulescens

Anyone who has spent any length of time in South Africa will come back with pictures and tales of Kniphofia caulescens, which should rank near the top of any sane person's list of best torch lilies. You see, this is a widespread plant found in vast throngs, as in the picture above--usually at very high elevations in and adjacent to Lesotho. This is one distinctive and very hardy red hot poker! The blue leaves are diagnostic--they almost look like a blue leaved yucca or agave they are so distinct and sculptural all on their own.

But it is the amazing, nearly profligate display of the flowers that makes this so special. This clump above is blazing away in the middle of the Rock Alpine Garden as I type this: it has been blooming for nearly two weeks, and promises to go on another two at least. If you live in or near Denver, trot on down to worship it soon--you will not regret it. Actually, if you live anywhere, hop on a plain, train or automobile and hustle your tushy down here anyway: Denver Botanic Gardens right now are simply too gorgeous for words--although Matt Mattus has managed pretty effectively to capture some of the luster in his must read blog!

How photogenic can a plant be? Here is our regal queen in the garden of Elaine and Bob Menter, in Greenwood Village, Colorado. Notice how cunningly Elaine tucked some lavender-purple foil (veronica? campanula? forgot which) as a backdrop (Elaine and her garden are of a league with this great plant: queenly all!)

This was a particularly stunning clump with gigunda heads of bloom in our old cutting garden: now an expansion of the Japanese garden occupies this space: time does move on. Wish the Kniphofia had moved as well...

 And here yet another clump at Denver Botanic Gardens--in the South African plaza (appropriately enough). Somewhere I MUST have photographed the impossibly stately and wonderful unblooming rosettes you can see right now at the Gardens on Kendrick Lake: imagine them for a moment in your mind: incredibly symmetrical and icy fountains of sapphire blue--worth growing as a foliage plant...

But the flowers--the strange blend of  burnt orange verging on vermillion with the pale yellow--almost white tubular florets--and the classic torch lily shape: yum yum! This clump is in the wonderful garden of Ann Weckbaugh in the south of Denver.

Did I mention that Plant Select has featured Regal torch lily as one of their choices in 2010? Although I suspect many seed companies and individuals might have grown this in the 20th Century, I believe much of what is in cultivation traces to my many trips to South Africa, where I have repeatedly sought this out...                    

It makes a spectacle (both in foliage and in late summer flower) that provides a focal point for your garden, and thanks to Plant Select, it is quite easily tracked down in independent garden centers across the country. And do plan a trip to the high Drakensberg in January or February one year so you can be dazzled by fields filled with thousands of these in nature! 

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