Kniphofia outside South Africa

John Grimshaw
Tue, 09 Dec 2008 09:16:26 PST
Like Chris Whitehouse I am very familiar with Kniphofia thomsonii in the 
wild in Kenya and Tanzania, and have also grown it in the garden for the 
past 15 yrs or so. Two varieties are recognised: var. thomsonii, widespread, 
with glabrous corollas, and var. snowdenii (western Kenya, eastern Uganda) 
with papillose corollas, giving a unique, curiously hairy look. Typical var. 
snowdenii looks very different to var. thomsonii, but at least in the 
Cherangani Hills of western Kenya they intermingle and intergrade and one 
can find plants with only slightly papillose corollas. It is usually 
orange-flowered (opening from dull red buds) but can be yellow - a good 
'hairy' yellow one appeared in seedlings raised from a collection I made in 
1998 and I believe is still in cultivation in western England. I have a 
couple of orange 'hairy' clones here.

Var. thomsonii grows in open places in the upper parts of the Afromontane 
forest on the East African mountains, and extends out into the 
ericaceous/grassland vegetation, almost into true alpine territory. In the 
forest it is usually stoloniferous in the grass & among other herbs, with 
loose racemes of usually orange flowers from red buds. It can be up to 
1.5-1.8 m tall in lush places in the forest, but 40-50 cm is more usual. 
Above the treeline it tends to be more clump-forming, and the inflorescences 
are tighter and more poker-like. On Kilimanjaro at least I have seen it with 
good red flowers all the way down, at the edge of the alpine zone at about 
3400 m, and at about 2700 m in grassland with yellow flowers. I grew this 
clone until last year, but lost it last winter when I didn't get it 
established in a pot early enough.

It's a frustrating plant to grow, not being quite hardy enough, and not 
being quite rewarding enough, to make it worth persevering with. Over the 
years I've grown material from southern Tanzania through to Mt Kenya & 
they've all slipped away. The two Cherangani clones of var. snowdenii I 
still have are maintained in pots in the polytunnel, although I have clumps 
outside as well at present. Not one inflorescence in 2008! The species in 
general is very stoloniferous, which makes it handy for propagating, but few 
of the shoots ever get robust enough to flower, it seems.

The usual clone in cultivation has been called K. snowdenii for decades - I 
think it was introduced originally by Patrick Synge from Mt Elgon in the 
1930s, but it has perfectly glabrous corollas, so is var. thomsonii. It also 
has paler orange flowers than most. It is hardy in a warm sheltered place 
and has certainly managed persist all this time.

Ethiopian Kniphofia are in a mess and neither Marais'  Kew Bulletin article 
on Tropical African Kniphofia nor the more recent accounts in Flora of 
Ethiopia and Eritrea, and in the little book Flowers of Ethiopia & Eritrea: 
Aloes and other Lilies (S. Demissew et al. 2003), are very useful. They all 
include two quite different species under the name K. foliosa. The problem, 
I presume, is that Kniphofia make terrible herbarium specimens. Once my 
current book is out of the way my first project will be to attempt to work 
out what is going on there and I have blocked out 3 weeks of the diary for 
next autumn in the hope of being able to afford to go to Ethiopia for some 
fieldwork when they're flowering in late September. I grow one of the two 
taxa here - it has survived two winters outside in reasonably good shape, 
and in a milder garden than here might actually do quite well in southern 
England. I am not familiar with the cultivated stock of K. foliosa mentioned 
by Chris, but wouldn't trust the identity of any poker without wild 
provenance for a moment.

John Grimshaw

Dr. John M. Grimshaw
Sycamore Cottage
GL53 9NP

Tel. 01242 870567 

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