PLANT OF THE WEEK #19: Kniphofia sarmentosa

While the sun has just broken through the cloud this afternoon, most of today has been cold, wet and gloomy.  The garden is looking sparse, partly because it’s winter and partly because I’ve just started my annual cleanup and a lot of plants have been cut back, leaving stalky mounds and exposed mulch.  Not too much to gladden the heart.  But all day the first flowers of my several clumps of Kniphofia sarmentosa (Winter flowering poker) have been injecting a spark of colour into the dry border.

A friend gave me a chunk of this plant quite a few years ago, after my admiring it in their garden.  That clump then sat in a pot for years (testament to its inherent toughness) until the new garden gave me space to plant it.  It’s been brightening up our winters since then.

Kniphofia sarmentosa is native to the mountains north east of Cape Town in South Africa, in an area of winter rainfall.  In nature apparently it grows in drainage lines and hollows (as do many kniphofias).  Perhaps as a result of this it doesn’t seem to mind our winter wet soils, although I can’t vouch for just how tolerant of waterlogging it is.

In our climate I can grow it without any supplementary water.  It goes pretty much completely dormant over summer (you may want to put it in areas where other foliage can hide the declining foliage over summer).  When autumn kicks in the strong blue-green foliage starts to appear, followed by the flowers that emerge in June and continue pretty much through until early spring.  I’m not sure how to describe the colour of the flowers.  The Lambley Nursery catalogue has them as “glowing coral scarlet”.  They certainly aren’t the more usual orangey-red of many kniphofias.  Whatever it’s called, I like it.  Other fanciers are honeyeaters, including wattlebirds, and the stout flower stems are strong enough to hold up a couple of hungry wattlebirds at a time.  Another plus.

In terms of maintenance, I cut off the spent flower spikes once they become unbearable, and towards the end of summer I pull off the dead foliage.  And that’s it.  Timing of those events is entirely up to the individual.

As an aside and fun fact, my late colleague Clive Sorrell, who was a stickler for correct pronunciation of plant names, insisted that since the genus was named for the 18th Century German botanist Johann Hieronymus Kniphof, the pronunciation should be k – nip – hoff – ia, stressing the k, as opposed to the way most of us mere mortals use ny-fo-fia.  No correspondence will be entered into on this matter.

Peter May

After finishing his PhD in agricultural science, Peter taught at the University of Melbourne – Burnley Campus for many years and finished his time there as Head of Campus.  He ran a very small consulting business for a number of years after that and is now reasonably close to being fully retired.

Peter has lived and gardened in Kyneton in Central Victoria since the early 1980s, firstly in an old rambling Victorian house and garden and more recently in a new, and better insulated, house with a smaller garden, the ornamental part of which was designed with the intent of relying solely on rainfall for irrigation.  It is still a work in progress.

His musings on various things horticultural and edible can be found at Instagram account @mayhorticulture


  1. How frost hardy is it Peter? I remember a couple of big old clumps of ‘Winter Cheer’ (as we know it now) in my childhood garden in Diamond Creek, and without a doubt, delicious, promising spikes would emerge over winter, and, just as they were about to colour up, get frosted off completely. Every single year. I’ve never bothered with it since. But I’ve never tried K sarmentosa.
    Also, really interested in the K-nip-hoff-ia idea, as it’s consistent with a few place names that I’ve encountered eg Keukenhof (the name referring to the vegetable garden, and the ‘hof’ specifically to the ‘house’ ie (as far as I understand ‘house garden’. Also Hermannshof – that great garden in Bavaria – which literally translates ‘Herman’s house’, and that, therefore, is pronounced ‘Hermans-hof’ rather than what we’d default to in English ie ‘Herman-shof’). So while I’d heard the theory of the hard K on Kniphofia before, I’d never heard the ph shouldn’t be pronounced as we’d expect. I’m convinced. And ready to comply!

    1. Michael
      re frost, very tough. based on my experience here, it could go to -5C at least. Ive never seen any damage.

  2. Fabulous colour, Peter, your photos make it look almost carmine but not quite… It’s a difficult colour to describe. Their toughness is admirable; South African genera as a whole have really great adaptability to SE Australia.

    I’ve always loved the phonology of plant names, after studying latin at uni as a teenager some of the pronunciation conventions applied to plant names can result in hilarity.

    If you go by classical Latin convention, there’s no soft ‘c’, they’re all pronounced with a hard ‘c’ sound (not always, but most of the time).

    Apply that to Acacia acinacea and it never fails to make me giggle.

    1. James,
      There’s definitely a hint of blue about the colour in my view. I like it very much, especially at this time of the year when there’s not a lot of other colour to clash with it.

      RE the hard c. There’s the syclamen vs kicklamen debate (John Patrick held the view that the original greek was more accurate.), not to mention Agastacky.

  3. Love this variety Peter! I will be on the lookout -I have yellow winter flowering ones in the garden but would love this red to add some more winter interest. Interesting article.

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