The grass leaved pokers... a photoessay on Kniphofia

Kniphofia porphyrantha
  The Drakensberg mountains are the epicenter of speciation for the genus Kniphofia. There are dozens of species here that fill all manner of ecological niches at all altitudes. There is one group, however, of mostly high alpine, grassy-leaved species that are near the top of everyone's list of favorites. The most distinctive of these, perhaps, is the bright yellow form of K. porphyrantha which is abundant everywhere around Sentinel, the enormous massif at the very north end of the Southern Drakensberg perched near the lodge at Witsieshoek (a favorite destination for hikers). I have visited Sentinel on four occasions from early January to March, and every time I found this blooming there (although each time there seemed to be a whole different suite of other plants out with it I'd never seen on another trip). I managed to get seed of these decades ago, and it has persisted in cultivation--with a twist (as you shall see..) By the way, I took this picture the second week of January this year.

K. porphyrantha on Platberg
 It may strain your credulity a bit, but the above was taken almost the same week as the first picture, albeit a few years apart, on the slopes of One Man Pass on Platberg, just behind Harrismith in the Orange Free State. Much lower in elevation. And much more orange in color.

Kniphofia porphyrantha
 This is a slightly out of focus (alas) picture I took in 2005 in early February at Naude's Nek--a fabulous pass at the very opposite end of the Kwa-Zulu Natal Drakensberg from Witsieshoek. Here there is a definite bicoloration.
Kniphofia porphyrantha
Here it is, blooming in my garden last  June. Believe it or not, it derives from seed from plants growing with the first pictured species on Sentinel. It never blooms solid yellow as they do on Sentinel--perhaps a temperature thing. It blooms and lasts a long time and elicits lots of comments from visitors. By the way, I obtained this from Far Reaches Farm in Port Townsend--a wonderful rare plant nursery who in turn obtained it indirectly from me.What goes around came around!

Kniphofia thodei
 This is what really prompted this piece: fifteen years ago it was raining as we drove over Oh My God Pass when I saw this poker flicker past out of the side of my eye. As the weather cleared, I looked for more plants but did not find any that trip. Not until a few weeks ago, when we were driving over Moteng Pass (2820 M.) when I glimpsed these..."Stop the bus!". Fortunately there was a pull off nearby, and 17 anxious people got off the bus (and I think most got this very same picture!). What a thrill to track it down, finally! You can tell it's very closely allied to K. porphyrantha--only with white rather than yellow base coloration. Photograph taken mid January this year..

Kniphofia thodei
 I had to show yet another picture of this beauty, which I don't believe is established in cultivation.
Kniphofia thodei habitat
 I'm actually standing right next to these pokers as I photograph the lovely nearby waterfall. To give you sense of where they grow in nature. Unfortunately, these are far from producing seed when I was there on January 12.)
Kniphofia triangularis
I took the picture above (and published it in an earlier blog post) but include it since the Rhodes/Tiffindell/Naude's Nek area is where many distinctive forms of this hardiest and most loved of the Kniphofias grow. I first saw it near the summit of the pass in glorious bloom in 1994--in a peculiar bicolor form. This picture was taken a quarter mile or so south of Tiffindell on a steep slope not twenty miles from where I first saw this in nature 21 years ago. Yet very different: I haven't scanned the slide from that trip yet. Some day perhaps I will and will add it here?.

Kniphofia triangularis
 I took these pictures in the last day of circumnavigating the Southern Drakensberg, on Platberg--an isolated mountain massif just north of Harrismith. These had a particularly vibrant shade of orange.

Kniphofia triangularis
 A closer look at the flower here...

Kniphofia triangularis
 This picture (same plant) was taken at a different angle, and with a sky backdrop: cameras can do so much to tell our story. And they tell it very differently on shot to the next!

Kniphofia triangularis
 Here is one of many clumps of this species, this one in the South African plaza. We  grow a number of other forms of this--all of them unusually colored and quite adaptable to garden culture.

Kniphofia 'Redhot Popsickle'
Finally, this everblooming hybrid marketed by Terra Nova that actually lives up to the hype. It is obviously related to the group containing the three species I've pictured. But whatever else gave it genes, this is one of the most relentless blooming plants I've ever seen--stem after stem emerges from spring to autumn creating a floral spectacle second to none during that interim.

I returned from my latest trip more in love with Africa and her plants than ever. I thought this would perhaps be my Swan Song, but I've been thinking of all sorts of ways I might fund yet an eighth trip.... So little time, so many Kniphofias!

Comments

  1. Nice photos as always, and I didn't know they finally came up with a truly everblooming hybrid. K triangularis is a great doer here too in NY, and kniphofias are way underused in this area. They are winter hardy and deer tend to avoid them so far. Ernie

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  2. I've been seduced the flowers of so many different kniphofias, and I love way they draw hummingbirds. But I always tire of the ratty foliage in a year or two. Somebody I'll have a bigger garden where I can appreciate the flowers while grasses or other plants hide the foliage! (I have the same issue with daylilies.)

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  3. Many kniphofias (K. hirsuta, K. stricta, K. ritualis and in fact these grass types) have much more compact foliage than the common hybrids--and they are much more manageable. I find that they respond well to a heavy haircut in spring and look pretty trim through the year. A few--like Kniphofia caulescens and K. Northiae--are spectacular foliage plants worth growing for the leaves alone. I suspect some selection for foliage could improve many of the group, but I hear ya, they can be a ratty mess if not "maintained"...

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  4. Good afternoon - I am the Habitat Heroes coordinator for Audubon Rockies and I provide education to our community members to practice a form of landscape stewardship - wildscaping in Fort Collins, CO! Wildscaping provides habitat and invites birds, pollinators and other wildlife into our backyard.

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