8 – 28 June

Red hot pokers are one of the stars of the garden in June.  They literally shine like torches against our dark green hedge.

Red hot pokers don’t like to sit in water and can get crown rot if the soil or compost isn’t free-draining.

I was so excited to see flower buds appearing on our red hot pokers this year!  This is the first time they’ve flowered since we planted them 3 years ago.

Red hot pokers, also called tritoma, poker plant and torch lily, are native to parts of Africa, including South Africa.

They have compound flower spikes held on sturdy stems.  Our red hot poker plants have long, narrow, evergreen leaves with slightly serrated edges, and their flower spikes are up to 100cm tall.

There are many varieties that grow well in the UK, as hardy perennials. The plant size, leaf shape and flower colour vary between the varieties.

Generally, the leaves are narrow and strappy. The flowers can range from green-yellow to orange, red or even pink.

Orange kniphofia red hot poker flowers and leaves

Orange kniphofia red hot poker flowers and leaves

How to grow red hot pokers

Red hot poker plants have fleshy roots and spread by rhizomes, and can form clumps up to 100cm wide. They don’t like to sit in water and can get crown rot if the soil or compost isn’t free-draining.

Don’t have well-drained soil?

If water stays in puddles on the ground after it has rained in your garden, you might not have free-draining soil. Try growing red hot pokers in large pots, around 50cm in diameter.  Include sand, horticultural grit, perlite or vermiculite into the compost to allow the water to drain away easily.

Feeding potted red hot pokers

Also, try adding a bit of your garden’s topsoil if possible, because this helps to feed the plants for longer and add beneficial soil microbes that help your plants grow.  Normal potting compost will only be able to sustain and feed plants for up to 6 months.  Add a top dressing of well-rotted farmyard manure in late autumn or early spring to build up the compost.

Macro close-up of orange flower of red hot poker (kniphofia) plant

Orange flower of red hot poker (kniphofia) plant

How to care for red hot poker plants:

  • Plant red hot pokers in full sun
  • Give them well-drained soil to prevent crown rot
  • Add perlite or sand to potting compost to increase drainage
  • Feed them well with well-rotted manure or chicken manure pellets
  • Remove finished flower spikes to encourage more flowers
  • Remove old leaves in the spring – dead leaves can help protect against the winter cold
  • Divide clumps in the spring to make more plants, and to prevent the plants from competing with each other
  • Seeds produced will take a long time to develop into flowering plants, and won’t produce plants that are the same as the original variety (which is not a problem if you’re not concerned about growing named varieties…)

Bare root perennials

We bought our red hot poker plants as dry bare root plants from B&Q.  Buying perennial plants as bare roots is definitely a cheaper way to buy plants, but it does require lots of patience!

It’s possible to buy the bare root perennials for as little as £3 each, or less if they’re in a sale, but a nice 2L potted perennial plant can cost around £15. Buying bare root plants sounds like a bargain, doesn’t it? But first consider that bare root plants have been hanging on racks for months and are very dried out. Some might not grow at all.  Also, they can take 2 or 3 years to flower.

If, like me, you can’t resist buying cheap plants, a good idea is to soak the bare root plants in water for a couple of hours before planting.  This helps to start them into growth after being dried and dormant for a while.

We planted our red hot poker plants in two large tubs, around 60cm wide.  In one tub we also planted daylily plants, and in the other tub we planted alliums.  Before we planted alliums, we grew sunflowers with the red hot poker plants.  In this pot, there are no signs of flowers from the red hot pokers yet.  The sunflower plants seem to have dominated the pot so much, and have set the red hot poker plants back a bit.

Top tip: don’t grow sunflowers in pots with perennials that might suffer from the competition.

What to plant with red hot pokers

Red hot pokers look great as part of a prairie garden or in a cottage garden.  They go well with Achilleas (yarrow), Hemerocallis (daylilies) and Echinaceas.

Conclusion

In conclusion, red hot pokers are generally easy to grow. Give your plants well-drained soil or compost, keep them well-fed with well-rotted manure and give them a sunny position for most of the day.

For more plant profiles see Plant of the Moment.

Happy growing!