The fascinating red-hot poker

It’s a familiar sight at Verloren Valei but there’s more to this distinctive species than meets the eye.

A colony of Kniphofia porphyranta (Dwarf Red-hot Poker) at Verloren Valei (Photograph: Gerrit van Ede)

Over the years, red-hot pokers have become familiar garden plants worldwide—just another export from Africa’s rich floral biodiversity. They fall into the Kniphofia genus, which forms part of the aloe family, Asphodelaceae, which was first described in 1794. The genus is named after the 18th Century German physician and botanist Johann Hieronymus Kniphof.

There are around 73 species in the Kniphofia family, of which 67 are native to Africa. Two are found in Madagascar and one in Yemen. The African Kniphofia occur mostly in the eastern regions of the continent, with 47 species native to eastern South Africa.

Kniphofia flower heads are very similar to that of aloes, but the plants are quite different. They grow from an underground rhizome, and most have multi-stems.

These plants typically prefer a damp area, often found in wetlands, vleis, or near streams. They can form large colonies, but the plants normally grow well apart.

Three Kniphofia species are found at Verloren Valei Nature Reserve: Kniphofia porphyrantha (Dwarf Red-hot poker or Hoëveld Vuurpyl); Kniphofia fluviatilis (River Poker); and Kniphofia rigidifolia (Dullstroom Poker)

All three are fascinating plants with K. rigidifolia only occurring in Mpumalanga, specifically around Dullstroom.

Close up of K. porphyranta, the Dwarf Red-hot Poker, in bloom (Photograph: Gerrit van Ede)

Kniphofia porphyrantha, the Dwarf Red-hot Poker, has a fairly wide distribution across Gauteng, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the eastern Free State, as well as the western part of Swaziland. Plants are found in grassy wetlands and mountain grassland at altitudes in the range of 1500m- 2300m above sea level.

The flowering times vary, with the northern plants (Gauteng and Mpumalanga) flowering during October – December but in the more southern localities the flowering time is extended into January and February.

At Verloren Valei (altitude around 2100m) they grow in grassy vleis, and flower in December and January. This species is fairly small in stature with many stems; leaves are 300-450mm long and 6-14 mm wide, erect when young but later reflexed, nearly flat at the top, but keeled at the bottom. Flower stems stand above the foliage being about 600mm long.

During the flowering season at Verloren Valei, the grass is normally still fairly short and the flowering plants can easily be seen from a distance. The flowers are in a dense short cylinder. The raceme[1] is mainly yellow with the top tipped with red.

In the early days of our exploration of Verloren Valei, we used to have a rest or even lunch near a colony of these pokers. One or two Oribi also inhabited this patch of veld, which meant that we did not only enjoy the red-hot pokers but with some luck also the little buck.

The River Poker in its preferred habitat (Photograph: Gerrit van Ede)

Kniphofia fluviatilis, the River Poker, is a fascinating species. Its preferred habitat is on the banks of a stream that is flowing quite fast over rocks or, indeed, in between the rocks themselves, at an altitude range of 1200- 2200m.

This species occurs in Mpumalanga, the foothills of the Drakensberg range of KwaZulu-Natal and in the northern part of the Eastern Cape.

The dark green leaves are 350 -700mm long and 8-25mm wide. They are erect and V-shaped in cross-section, and the flower stems are normally longer than the leaves, being 450-600mm tall. The flower-head or raceme is dense, 20 x 60-80mm in size and partly cylindrical, but pyramidal at the apex. Its colour is apricot yellow to flame to orange red due to the buds occurring at the apex.

At Verloren Valei, the flowering time is November to December. Interestingly, a large proportion of the photographs I have taken of this species over the past 20 years date from the end of November—but a recent one was taken at the beginning of November.

Apparently this species can be confused with K. porphyrantha especially in herbarium specimens but in the wild, the differences in habitat generally prevent any confusion.

This species tends to be evergreen, especially those plants growing in the water. The leaves are relished by the various buck species that occur on Verloren Valei.

Dullstroom special, K rigidifolia, showing its characteristic flower head (Photograph: Gerrit van Ede)

Kniphofia rigidifolia is endemic to Mpumalanga, especially around Dullstroom. iNaturalist uses the common name Dullstroom Poker for this species. As the name implies, the leaves of this species are erect and firm, about 500-800mm long and 20-35mm broad. They are V-shaped in cross-section. The literature indicates that the edge and keel of the leaves are finely serrulate, meaning that they have small, fine teeth or notches along the edge.

Close-up showing serrulate leaves of K. rigidifolia (Photograph: Gerrit van Ede)

The flower stem tends to be shorter than the leaves or barely a bit longer. The raceme is nearly egg-shaped and even round; its bottom section is yellow-green (flowers) with the top section (buds), flame to orange-red to even coral-red in colour.

Like most Kniphofias, the species has multiple stems. Plants tend to grow among dolerite rocks in dense grass and in fertile soil beside streams.

Flowering time is from mid-October till the end of November.

[1]              A flower cluster with separate flowers attached by short equal stalks at equal distances along a central stem. The flowers at the base of the central stem develop first.

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