Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today

 
 

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Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

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Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

Octopus Kniphofia

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Can a rosette of half-dead foliage be a thrill?  If it's the rosette of the most cold- and wet-tolerant species of torch lily in the world, yes.  The so-called "octopus" torch lily—a happy plant really does look like a big one—is uniquely able to handle Winters nearly 8,000 miles from its home turf in South Africa.  And that's because its preferred habitat in Africa is by cold mountain streams where at least some snow and ice are a given.

 

Winter in Rhode Island, then, isn't different in character.  But it might be in degree—and overwintering borderline plants is, itself, a matter of degrees.  Each one helps. 

 

Should I leave this plant completely unprotected?  It's already mid-January; so far so good.  But there's ice-cold rain and snow to come, and it will slip right down into the heart of the rosette.  That's fine in a climate where there could be months of drought in the Summer—when the stream has dried up, too—and even dew and fog can be a help by trickling down into the plant's center.

 

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But if I bend some of the leaves over, maybe the rosette could shed some of the chilly Winter water.

 

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I've completed a casual braid of the foliage of the rosette on the left, which should help even more.  Should I leave the right rosette alone?  Do the experiment?  See if braiding helps survival or not?

 

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This is my only colony of Kniphofia northiae, and it would be awful to lose it to an experiment when I've already confirmed, two years in a row, that protecting it will help it survive. 

 

What to do?  I'll leave the colony alone for now—but keep a close eye on it.  If the damage to the foliage gets close to the very heart of the rosette, I'll know the weather's finally too rough for the plant to survive on its own.  Then I'll come to the rescue with mulch and a temporary roof to keep the rain out.

 

 

Here's how to grow this unique torch lily:


Latin Name

Kniphofia northiae

Common Name

Octopus Kniphofia

Family

Xanthorroeaceae, the Grass-Tree family.  (The what?  Grasstrees are yucca-like evergreen oddities native to Australia.  Talk about uncommon & astonishing!)

What kind of plant is it?

Evergreen perennial.

Hardiness

Zones 6 - 10.

Habit

Clumping basal rosettes of large foliage.  In mild climates, older rosettes can grow from a short trunk; it's only one foot tall, but unique among Kniphofia species.  The rosettes readily form offsets.

Rate of Growth

Fast in milder climates. 

Size in ten years

In mild climates, a clump five to six feet across and two to three feet tall, with flower stalks rising an additional two to three feet.  Much smaller in climates where Winter causes substantial dieback of the oldest foliage. 

Texture

Sculptural, with presence similar in scale to that of agave.

Grown for

its foliage.  It's telling that the common name refers to the foliage not the flowers.  True, there are dozens of species and cultivars of torch lily, with flowers that are all similar in form if not size or color; see "Variants" below.  But octopus kniphofia is unique among torch lilies for its very wide foliage, blue-green and gently curving, that really does suggest a horticulture-mad cephalopod.  Leaves of plants that grow where Winter dieback is minimal can be six inches wide at the base and two to three feet long. 

 

its flowers.  Typical for torch lily species: Stiff spikes crowded with small downward-leaning tubular blossoms at the top.  The flowers open first at the bottom of the cluster, and change color from orange-red to yellow as they do.  The bicolor display is unflinching in its enthusiasm, and color sophisticates will wince at the abrupt switch from older yellow blossoms at the bottom to orange-red buds above. 

 

its hardiness.  Kniphofia northiae is unusually well adapted to Winters that can be both cold and wet, above ground and below, because it grows in just such an environment in its native South Africa.  The plant proliferates on the marshy banks of cold (for South Africa) mountain streams, where frost and even snow are normal.  Even so, Winter in the Eastern United States is a tougher slog, with sub-freezing temperatures for days and even weeks, and the certainty of slush, ice, snow, and cold water.  See "How to handle it" below.

Flowering season

Spring in mild climates; Summer in harsher climates, where the plant needs a long time after the stressful Winter to revive.

Color combinations

The blue-blushed foliage would suggest partners that celebrate pink or pale yellow with contrasts of burgundy, but the flower spikes that are—all at once—yellow and orange and red call for neighbors in hot hues.  Burgundy is the only color in common.  Kniphofia northiae, then, is a house divided, and it's always a Solomonic decision to introduce it into mixed plantings.  Either harmonize with the foliage and ignore the flowers, or harmonize with the flowers and accept that the foliage isn't quite the right backdrop.  

 

The best path between the rock of the raucous flowers and the hard place of the pastel but sculptural foliage?  Surround Kniphofia northiae with neutral horticulture—deep green groundcovers or backdrops—or even no horticulture at all.  See "Where to use it" below for some options.

Partner Plants


Kniphofia northiae is most effective when its partner plants—if any—are distinctly neutral in color as well as subordinate in character.  You could plant amid a low grassy groundcover, such as green liriope or black mondo grass, or one of medium height, such as 'Gold Dust' deschampsia or even the thread-leaf bluestar, Amsonia hubrichtii, in which the octopus would seem to be swimming.  And whenever possible, back with dark evergreens with contrastingly small foliage, such as yew, juniper, or box. 

 

In mild climates, K. northiae can be a groundcover in the light shade of woody plants with feathery or few leaves, such as Mt. Aetna broom, Genista aetnensis; purple-leaved mimosa, Albizia j. 'Summer Chocolate'; or almost any of the innumerable cultivars of acacia.  In Zone 7 and definitely in Zone 6, however, octopus kniphofia should receive full sun. 

Where to use it in your garden

For better or for worse, the appearance of Kniphofia northiae is striking.  Site it where you actually do want to create a focus. 

 

The plant's large scale and, at least in milder climates, steady presence year-round suggest that it could be effective when used center-stage, even when the stage in question is large.  What about a group of octopus—a veritable herd of them—mulched with gravel and backed by tall evergreens, and seen at the end of a vista?  Or a line of them at the front of a raised bed along a walkway?  Or, planting one per square yard, filling a bed at the center of a courtyard? 

 

Given the gentle downward arc of the foliage, let alone the potential for older plants to develop short trunks, planting octopus kniphofia in large and tall containers would also be exciting.  The containers would inevitably be prominent, and could be moved into shelter if needed. 

Culture

Full sun and, in climates where frost or snow is likely, all possible heat, such as from nearby masonry or paving, which will help the plants revive more quickly in the Spring.  Although all Kniphofia species and cultivars tolerate drought and poor soil, rich soil and plenty of water during the growing season will speed growth of K. northiae.  But hardiness is enhanced by impeccable drainage and lower soil moisture during the cold months—which, almost inevitably, would mean a leaner and less nutrient-rich soil.  See "How to handle it" below. 

How to handle it:  The Basics

In mild climates, where frost is minimal, plant in almost any soil, from sandy to clay; octopus kniphofia is capable of swimming in almost any sea.  In climates colder than Zone 8, it's safer to strike a conservative balance between the rich moist soil the plant would prefer in the warm months, and the lean, dry, and fast-draining soil that would enhance its hardiness in the cold ones. 

 

Whatever the character of the soil itself, plant on a slope so that surface water has the briefest opportunity to soak in.  You can compensate for a lean and dry-in-Winter soil by providing fertilizer and extra water in Summer.  It's much harder to keep rich (and therefore moisture-retentive) soil dry in Winter, which is when all soils are going to be prone to wetness, what with lower temperatures, weaker sun, and, often, high precipitation.  Read how I overwinter Kniphofia 'Cool Knip' year after year. 

 

Because Kniphofia northiae is even more tolerant than most, and its foliage is much more substantial, it's important not to rush the plant into the "extreme mulching" routine that works so well for Kniphofia species and cultivars with comparatively thin and grassy foliage, such as 'Cool Knip'.  Indeed, the trick is to see how long you can delay the cover-up, which, while protective against cold and wet, also causes foliage die-back, but from darkness, instead. 

 

As I write in mid-January, my own octopus is still very much in leaf, and shows no sign of wanting my assistance to get through the Winter.  Is this hubris (if any octopus could be said to have any) or is it that the plant is now three years old and that much more established?  February and March are the months that kill marginally-hardy plants that still haven't received the Winter protection they need.  I'll keep watch to see when—or if—my intervention would be prudent.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?


Kniphofia northiae is unusually tolerant of cold as well as moisture, so you could test its ability to survive Winter on its own.  I'd only do this if I had established a few octopuses already, and even then I would let only one or two go without protection that first Winter.  Then I wouldn't be completely without them if the experiment failed.

 

Kniphofia northiae looks so handsome in containers that this could be yet another way around an otherwise dicey Winter survival.  The trade-off is that you need to lug the container into shelter in the Fall and then back out into the garden in the Spring.  Provide all possible light when in shelter, but water only if the soil feels dry.  Even full sun in a greenhouse is much weaker than full sun outdoors, and Winter sun is weaker to begin with.  On both counts, then, the plant will be growing much more slowly.

Quirks or special cases


None.

Downsides

Unless your drainage is impeccable, or your climate a healthy Zone 7 and warmer, overwintering kniphofias is a project in itself.  On the other hand, as exciting as they are, kniphofias are no big deal where they are comfortably hardy.  The plants are bullet-proof there.  Whereas kniphofias that thrive where they normally don't?  A thrill.

Variants

There are many species, hybrids, and cultivars.  Once you've succeeded with one kniphofia, it's impossible to resist trying more.  There's a huge range in flower colors, from caramel and white to yellow to deep orange and vermillion.  Some flowers—especially of the straight species—open up a lighter color but quickly age to a darker one, giving the bloom spike a dramatic but often tacky bi-color look.  The bloom spikes themselves can be skinnier or fatter, lengthy or squat, and are held at the top of thick stems that can be one foot to seven feet tall. 

 

Some plants are small enough overall to be mistaken for liriope; others, such as K. northiae, are huge and even architectural presences that you might mistake for aloes, agaves, or floppy-leaved yuccas.  Some bloom just once, but that could be in Spring or Summer.  Others rebloom with gusto, and over a long period.

Availability

On-line and, where the species is soundly hardy, sometimes even at retailers.

Propagation

By seed and by division.

Native habitat

Kniphofia northiae is native to South Africa.  It's named for Marianne North (1830-1890), a botanical artist who painted plants all over the world at a time when it was uncommon for a woman to travel so much. Kniphofia northiae is featured in one of her paintings. 

 

The Kniphofia tribe itself is named for Johann Hieronymus Kniphof, an 18th century German physician and botanist.  So the correct pronunciation should be "k'nip-HOFF-ee-uh" instead of "knife-OFF-ee-uh."  And the plant's nick-name, knips, is pronounced "k'NIPS".  Now you know.

 
 
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