Q: When is a non-native plant arguably native? A: When it is bred here. Such is the case with Kniphofia ‘Apricot Nectar’.
Now before I get all red hot pokered by you lot for making such an outlandish statement, let me just say that this plant is a star. And it’s orange. It was bred by David Glenn, plantsman and nurseryman extraordinaire at Lambley Nursery just outside Ballarat. If that doesn’t make it a true blue Aussie plant then I don’t know what does.
It has a lot in common with the large, striking red hot pokers we’re all familiar with. It’s tough, it tolerates a lot of hardship and it’s easy to grow. Where it differs is its stature, it’s comparatively tiny – tiny and gorgeous. It’s strictly full sun, but is happy with afternoon shade from 2pm onwards, anything more and the flowers get a severe case of the leans. The flowers are much more diminutive than the larger species and cultivars, flowering at about 40-50cm, from an airy, grassy tuft of mid-green foliage to around 30cm high and 40cm wide. So it’s a great plant for pops of colour in low borders. It punctuates my front garden with bright exclamation marks over a long period.
I had coveted red hot pokers since first seeing them after moving to Victoria some 15 years ago now, when I was just beginning to become garden-conscious. The problem I faced after actually having a garden of my own was that all the species I was familiar with were large growing. Too large for my small city garden. They remained a plant firmly in the ‘longed for’ category until I stumbled on a dwarf at a nursery and the realisation of ‘You mean there are dwarf cultivars?’ was a decidedly Eureka moment. The exultation that plants can bring, I hope I never tire of it. The name ‘Apricot Nectar’ also never fails to remind me of the regrettable 70s culinary classic, chicken in apricot nectar. Though, thankfully, the insipid orange colour this dish conjures up bears no resemblance to its kniphofia namesake.
Kniphofia ‘Apricot Nectar’ is more orange than apricot but there’s a period just when the green flower buds are developing colour that they have a more apricot hue to them, but the period is brief. It gives way to a very vibrant orange once the flowers are fully mature, which stands out. The plant commands attention. Blend it with purples to coincide with it and it positively screams, possibly too loudly for some. I always try and position it where it catches the last of the evening light, just as the sun is setting. As the rest of the garden’s colour dulls with the falling light, the orange flowers look aflame when backlit, giving a heightened drama to sunset that only lasts 20 mins or so. You can find me savouring this moment daily, having a drink on the front step at precisely this time, like clockwork.
The main flowering event is November – early January in my experience, though if we get sudden summer dumps of rain it always throws up a spot flower here and there, though nothing like the number of flowers in the first flush, tragically. Irrigated, you can keep it flowering through to late summer, often into early autumn, though the flowers become less numerous as the season wanes.
It’s a fully winter deciduous dwarf kniphofia, with the foliage turning late and quickly in mid-winter, almost immediately from which its grass-like foliage starts growing again. This is the time to divide it and this is also one of the only downsides to this plant I can think of – to keep it looking good it needs dividing every 3 years or so. Its roots have the habit of growing in a strangling way amongst themselves and the clumps lose vigour as a consequence. But what gardener doesn’t love a bit of surgery every now and again? After division they flower profusely, one small division will throw up at least half a dozen flowers over the spring and summer.
Native or not, it was certainly grown here rather than flown here, and it’s an easy plant to grow for high-impact, punchy colour. Adorable is the way I mostly describe it. There are yellow forms of the dwarf kniphofias too, where orange can be a bridge too far for some. They all perform to differing degrees, but generally well enough as a group for this ‘arguably native’ to be considered for any sunny planting.
James Beattie is a gardener working in Melbourne. A graduate of Burnley, his work has since seen him traverse indigenous habitat restoration and management in the greater Melbourne area and writing content for Gardening Australia on ABC TV. For the past three years he’s been running his own private gardening business focusing on plant-driven garden design and implementation.