How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Red Hot Poker Plants

Attract hummingbirds and add an exotic look to your garden with the torch-like plumes of red hot poker plants. Former organic farmer and garden expert Logan Hailey digs into the simple growth requirements for this beautiful perennial.

A close-up of a field of red hot pokers in bloom. The vibrant red and yellow flowers fill the frame, creating a striking contrast against the green leaves. In the background, a traditional bamboo house peeks through the foliage, adding a touch of rural charm to the scene.

Contents

Feathery spikes of torch-like flowers in tones of red, yellow, and coral crown the sword-shaped bluish leaves of Kniphofia uvaria, commonly known as red hot poker plant. Native to South Africa, this herbaceous perennial thrives in warm weather and full sun.

Its peak summer blooms add diversity and vibrancy to pollinator gardens. Hummingbirds and butterflies go crazy for the clusters of tubular flowers. The spike-shaped blooms have a unique two-toned appearance because the emerging buds are red, and the mature upper flowers are yellow.

Sometimes known as torch lily, this Asphodelaceae family member is related to popular succulents like haworthia, bulbine, and aloe plants. The compact rhizomatous clumps are great for small garden places and can be left to naturalize in slow-spreading colonies for perennial borders.

Let’s dig into everything you need to know about growing a red hot poker plant!

Plant Overview

Red Hot Poker Kniphofia plants in full bloom, with tall, fiery orange flowers and long, brown stems resembling matchsticks. The flowers are starting to brown at the base, adding a touch of rustic charm. The plant is growing in a garden bed, with a house visible in the background.
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Plant Family Asphodelaceae
Plant Genus Kniphofia
Plant Species uvaria
Hardiness Zone 5-9
Planting Season Spring
Plant Maintenance Medium
Plant Height 3-4 feet
Fertility Needs Moderate
Temperature Hardy to -30°F or -34°C
Pairs With Echinacea, foxglove, ornamental grasses
Soil Type Average, well-drained, salt-tolerant
Plant Spacing 18-24”
Watering Needs Moderate
Sun Exposure Full sun
Lifespan Rhizomatous perennial
Pests Aphids, spider mites, thrips, snails, slugs 
Diseases Root rot

History and Cultivation 

The brightly colored torch-like flowers of this unique clump-forming ornamental give it the name torch lily or red hot poker. It originates in Cape Province, South Africa and has been cultivated in gardens since the 17th century. It can spread aggressively and is listed as an invasive species in Oregon.

Also known as Kniphofia uvaria, the scientific genus name honors German botanist Johann Hieronymus Kniphof. The species name uvaria comes from the Latin word uva, which means grapes, referring to the bundles of fruit that develop after the flowers are pollinated.

Description

A vibrant splash of red and yellow kniphofia flowers emerges from a vibrant green grass background. The vivid red, orange, and yellow blooms stand out against the lush greenery, creating a striking contrast. They are surrounded by white wildflowers, which add a touch of contrast and elegance to the scene.
Red hot poker thrives in zones 5-9, attracting pollinators with its red and yellow blooms.

Kniphofia uvaria is an herbaceous perennial plant with clumps of upright foliage and 3-4 foot tall flower stalks that emerge in the spring and bloom intermittently until fall. It is native to South Africa and grown as a popular evergreen or semi-evergreen ornamental in United States gardens from zone 5 to 9. 

The striking blooms are two-toned red and yellow, with huge clusters of tubular flowers that attract a diversity of eager pollinators. This plant thrives in humus-rich soils and warm climates but can tolerate average soil and regions as cold as zones 5 with winter protection. The somewhat coarse leaves are resistant to nibbling from deer or rabbits. These plants are also salt-resistant and drought-tolerant.

Propagation

Starting a specimen or ornamental planting of red hot poker plant is very simple. This perennial is widely available in nurseries and can also be propagated by seed or division.

Nursery Starts

A few young plants growing in a grassy field. The flower spikes haven't reached their full height yet, but they're already starting to produce blooms. The flowers are a soft yellow color, and they're arranged in dense, poker-like clusters at the top of the stems.
Non-flowering, healthy Kniphofia with white, loose roots are best bought in spring.

The quickest way to establish Kniphofia is to purchase a healthy seedling or gallon plant from your local garden store or nursery. When choosing a plant, look for a start that isn’t yet flowering and has healthy deep-green foliage.

Gently grasp the plant from the base and lift it from the pot to check for any signs of rootbinding. The roots coming from the rhizome should appear white, loose, and healthy. If they are winding in a tightly bound circle or emit a foul odor, do not buy the plant.

The best time to look for nursery starts is in the spring. This allows you to explore unique cultivars, like the white-flowered ‘Lady Lucky’ or ‘Ice Queen.’ These plants are commonly available as bare root specimens online as well. 

Seed

A cluster of russet-hued seed pods bursts into view, their papery skin crinkled and dry. Some pods, like weary treasure chests, crack open, spilling forth jet-black seeds like tiny secrets. Beyond the close-up focus, a verdant blur hints at a lush garden, beckoning exploration.
Growing from seeds offers budget-friendly, exciting gardening with possible unique flower combinations.

Starting from seeds requires a little more patience, as they can take up to a month to germinate! But this patience will be very rewarding for your wallet and your garden because you can grow a huge amount of plants. The seeds are easy to acquire and very affordable, especially if you want to grow a mass planting of Kniphofia

If you or a neighbor already have an established plant, you can collect seeds in the late summer, cold-treat them, and expand the populations the following year. Take note that hybridized cultivars won’t produce true-to-type seeds, and you may end up with some funky flower combos, which can make this process even more exciting.

Seeds can be directly sown after your last frost date, or you can start them indoors in late winter or early spring. These plants dislike root disturbance when transplanted, so it’s best to start them in biodegradable pots.

To grow Kniphofia uvaria from seed:

  1. If collecting seeds from a plant, wait until late summer when the fruits dry reddish-brown and open up.
  2. Crumble the brown capsule-like seed pods in your hand and place them in a bag or jar.
  3. Otherwise, purchase seeds from a reputable seed company.
  4. Place seeds in the refrigerator for 6-8 weeks over winter. Avoid letting them freeze.
  5. The cold treatment mimics nature’s winterization process to trigger germination in the spring.
  6. Alternatively, you can try winter sowing the seeds to naturally expose them to cold.
  7. Prepare biodegradable paper pots with a seed starting mix.
  8. Sow seeds very shallowly. They need light to germinate.
  9. Gently press in the soil and barely dust to cover.
  10. Keep the soil consistently moist but not soggy.
  11. Red hot poker plant seeds germinate best in temperatures around 70-75°F (21-24°C).
  12. Germination takes 21-28 days.
  13. Allow plants to grow indoors until they are 6-8” tall. Some growers keep them protected for an entire year before planting out.

Division

A close-up of a torch lily flower,  The flower is in full bloom, with long, tubular orange florets at the top of the stalk and shorter, yellow florets at the bottom. The flower stalk is tall and green, with long, narrow leaves.
Dividing Kniphofia in spring allows successful transplanting without root disturbance.

Torch lily plants grow from rhizomes that form dense clumps over time. If you already have a planting of Kniphofia, you can divide it to transplant specimens to other areas of your garden. Although these plants don’t love to be moved around, if you gently handle the root clumps, they will tolerate transplanting. 

The best time to divide this perennial is in the spring. You will be especially successful if you notice offsets forming around the base of an established plant. These offsets are easy to lift from the ground and prune from the mother plant without disturbing the underground clump. Then, you can simply move them 3-4 feet over or plant them in a new bed.

If your plants don’t seem to have any offsets growing from the side of the foliage, here is how to divide an established whole clump:

  1. Use a shovel or pitchfork to carefully dig around the circumference of the plant.
  2. Gently lift the clump from the ground.
  3. Use your fingers to carefully tease apart the rhizomes.
  4. If needed, use a sharp knife or pruners to cut any tough parts.
  5. Ensure each rhizome division is at least several inches across, with healthy roots and foliage attached.
  6. Larger pieces of rhizomes are better.
  7. Replant the divisions nearby and provide ample water until they perk back up.

They appreciate being divided every 4 to 5 years to ensure that clumps don’t become overcrowded.

Planting

The most common mistakes people make with Kniphofia are planting too deep or growing in soggy soil. You want to ensure these grassy-like rhizomatous clumps are planted with the crown right at the soil line. They need well-drained soil to prevent rot.

How to Transplant

A cluster of vibrant red hot poker flowers, standing tall and proud against a backdrop of manicured grass and green bushes. The flowers’ tubular red and yellow blooms resemble flames, adding a touch of fiery contrast to the serene garden setting.
Provide well-draining soil for optimal plant health.

The best time to transplant is in the spring after your last frost date. These perennial plants bloom in the summer and go dormant in the winter in most regions. They typically retain evergreen foliage, so when you plant them, they’ll look like a bluish-green grassy clump.

Before transplanting, check that the soil drains well. If you pour a full watering can over the area, does the water puddle up, or does it quickly drain? If it puddles up, the soil will be too poorly drained for Kniphofia. These plants despise standing water. Amend generously with compost, peat moss, ground bark, vermiculite, perlite, and/or horticultural sand.

 

Dig a hole about 1.5 times as deep and wide as the root ball.

  1. Gently lift the plant from its container (or leave it inside if growing in a biodegradable pot).
  2. Place the plant in the hole, ensuring the crown is right at the soil level.
  3. Avoid burying any foliage or leaving any roots exposed.
  4. Backfill and gently press in place.
  5. Water thoroughly so the soil can soak and settle in around the roots.
  6. Keep consistently moist but never soggy until the plants are established.
  7. Expect a small display of flowers in the first year after transplanting.

Spacing

A vibrant flower bed bursting with color and life. Plants stand like torches amidst a sea of soft, golden grasses. The healthy soil, rich in organic matter, nourishes a variety of plants, including delicate purple wildflowers that peek out from the base of the pokers.
For a lush display, space plants 18-48” apart, allowing for natural clumping and periodic division.

Space plants 18-24” apart from small varieties and 24-48” apart for larger varieties. The plants naturally like to clump together, so you can plant several in the same bed to form a colony. This yields an aesthetically pleasing display of grassy tufts that bloom an abundance of floral stalks every year. 

When growing in a mixed meadow garden style, plants need at least 36” of space from neighboring plants. Avoid overcrowding, as this can promote disease and reduce flowering capacity. The plants slowly multiply and expand via rhizome, which means they may need to be divided every 4-5 years.

How to Grow

With their grass-like clumps and towering spikes of tubular blossoms, torch lilies add an exotic “wow” factor to any landscape. They don’t ask for much maintenance and tolerate moderate drought. However, extra water and a little TLC ensure the most spectacular and long-lasting blooms.

Light

A close-up of several plants in bloom. The photo captures the texture of the long, green leaves, the delicate orange flowers, and the spiky bracts that add a touch of wildness to the plant's beauty.
They flourish in full sun, needing 6-8 hours of direct light for optimal blooming.

Full sun is best for these subtropical South African plants. Red hot pokers prefer 6-8 hours of direct sunlight, thriving alongside many perennial wildflowers in a meadow-style garden.

Avoid planting Kniphofia anywhere it may be shaded by trees or structures. Without enough light, the plants will fail to bloom their stunning, colorful flowers.

Water

 This close-up shows a plant being watered. Splashes of water spray from the sprinkler hit the vibrant orange flowers and green leaves.  In the background, there are other plants, including some ornamental grasses.
Established plants are drought-tolerant but thrive with weekly watering.

Red hot poker plants are drought-tolerant once established, but they produce the most prolific floral show when they receive supplemental water throughout the summer. About 1” of water per week throughout hot summers is ideal. Let the soil dry out between waterings. As plants become more established, they require less and less water. In areas with frequent rainfall, irrigation is usually unnecessary. 

The biggest mistake you can make with Kniphofia uvaria is overwatering. These plants strongly dislike soggy roots. When in doubt, err on the side of caution with moisture, especially in moist climates or clay-rich soils.

Soil

A pile of damp peat soil, with some pieces of bark scattered throughout. The peat soil is dark brown in color, and it looks soft and spongy. The bark pieces are various shades of brown, and they range in size from small chips to large chunks.
This perennial thrives in well-drained, organically-rich soil.

The best soil for this perennial is well-drained and rich in organic matter. Compost, finely ground bark, peat moss, and decomposed manure are helpful amendments for poorly drained areas. The plant is not picky about much, but it absolutely requires drainage.

Climate and Temperature

A close-up of a red flower, its fiery red blooms emerging from a green bud. Behind the flower, a field of purple wildflowers stretches into the distance, creating a soft, blurred backdrop. The mix of red, orange, and purple creates a beautiful and eye-catching contrast.
Native to South Africa, Kniphofia uvaria tolerates warm climates but can endure winter dormancy down to -15°F (-26°C) with protection.

Kniphofia uvaria are native to South Africa, where they grow as evergreen subtropical perennials year-round. They prefer warm to hot temperatures during the summer but tolerate subfreezing temperatures in the winter, depending on the variety. In northern U.S. gardens, the plants are semi-evergreen and may die back to the ground during winter, then return to growing in the spring. 

When torch lily plants experience winter dormancy, they can tolerate temperatures down to -15°F (-26°C). You can grow them in areas as cold as zones 5 and 6, but they may need more winter protection to prevent the crowns from freezing. Deep mulch is helpful, or you can tie the leaves together to form a protective canopy over the crowns. 

Fertilizing

A small, orange, mesh basket filled with slow-release fertilizer pellets. The basket is sitting on the ground, which is covered in a layer of twigs, dried leaves, and other debris. The fertilizer pellets are also orange and they are about the size of a pea.
Excessive nitrogen can lead to more leaves and fewer flowers.

Red hot poker plants don’t typically require supplemental fertilizer. An excessive amount of nitrogen can cause foliage or crown burn and promote the excessive growth of leaves rather than flowers.

If your soil is lacking in organic matter, a moderate amendment of compost or a small application of slow-release all-purpose fertilizer can help promote early growth. 

Maintenance

Vibrant red hot poker flowers with spiky red and yellow blooms stand out against a backdrop of a sun-baked adobe wall. The lush, deep green leaves of the red hot poker plants contrast beautifully with the warm hues of the flowers and the adobe wall, creating a visually striking composition.
Prune clumps to 4-6” in spring to encourage new growth and a tidy garden.

Deadheading spent flower spikes promotes new floral growth. Some gardeners cut back their red hot poker clumps in the spring, leaving at least 4-6” of growth at the base.

This pruning encourages a healthy flush of new leaves and keeps the garden looking tidy. Alternatively, you can allow the foliage to naturally die back and form mulch around the crown bases, which helps conserve soil moisture in drought-prone areas.

Varieties

This ornamental has been grown in gardens for centuries, so there are plenty of cultivated varieties to choose from! Plant breeders have developed torch lilies with a range of sizes, flower colors, and winter hardiness for different regions and aesthetics.

Kniphofia uvaria ‘Echo Duo’

A close-up of a single red hot poker flower basking in the warm sunlight. The vibrant red petals glow with an inner flame, fading to red and yellow at the tips. Behind the flower, lush green foliage blurs softly, creating a dreamy contrast.
The ‘Echo Duo’ cultivar attracts hummingbirds and often flowers in its first year.

This cultivar is known for its extra bold-colored flowers. It produces the iconic torch-like flower spikes with red and orange tops and yellowish-white bottoms. Hummingbirds love this plant

The duotone blooms give this cultivar its name. ‘Echo Duo’ produces lots of side shoots, and young plants usually bloom in the first year.

K. uvaria ‘Tawny King’

A cluster of orange and yellow Kniphofia 'Nobilis' flowers in full bloom surrounded by green, sword-shaped leaves. The flowers are tubular and grow densely packed on tall, upright spikes. The petals are a vibrant orange color with tinges of yellow at the tips.
Perfect for zones 7-9, this unique apricot and cream-colored poker plant features bronzed stems and tufted foliage.

This unique apricot and cream-colored flowered poker plant has bronzed stems that rise from pretty tufted clumps of foliage. It looks lovely amongst pastel-colored flowers and white-blooming accents. It is best for zones 7-9.

K. hirsuta ‘Fire Dance’ 

A mesmerizing close-up of a Kniphofia flower, capturing the vibrant colors of the flower in full bloom. The petals range from fiery red to sunny yellow, creating a stunning explosion of color. The intricate details of the flower are highlighted in the soft focus, making it a truly captivating image.
Related to K. uvaria, this variety features vibrant tubular flowers, adding exotic charm.

This close relative of K. uvaria boasts incredible tubular flowers that fade from bright red to orange to yellow to green. The fiery colors add an exotic foreground to evergreen grass backdrops.

K. triangularis ‘Dwarf’

A cluster of vibrant orange and tangerine dwarf flowers with long, slender spikes, rising above a lush green background. The flowers appear to be backlit by the sun, creating a warm glow and highlighting the delicate details of the petals.
This dwarf cultivar spreads only 12-15” wide, with vibrant tangerine and orange flowers reaching 36” tall.

If you are growing in containers or a small garden space, this dwarf cultivar only spreads about 12-15” wide. Its gorgeous flowers are tangerine and orange colored, rising up to 36” above the plant.

Garden Design

Red hot poker adds an exotic flare to a meadow garden, front yard, or perennial border bed. It works well with any full sun flower or ornamental that enjoys well-drained soil and tolerates moderate drought.

Echinacea

A close-up of a group of pink echinacea flowers, with a vibrant shade of pink, with long, slender petals that radiate outwards from the center. In the center of each flower is a raised cone-shaped disk, composed of hundreds of tiny orange-brown florets, creating a striking contrast to the pink petals.
Coneflower, a native wildflower, thrives alongside red hot poker with its purple-pink blooms.

Also known as coneflower, this iconic cone-shaped native wildflower thrives alongside red hot poker plants. The vibrant purple or pink blooms complement the tubular-shaped racemes. The yellow-flowered varieties look exceptionally striking with echinacea. Both plants can grow in soils with low fertility as long as there is drainage. 

Sedum

A close-up of a cluster of vibrant pink Sedum “Thunderhead” flowers. The blooms are densely packed, with many open and displaying their rosy petals and contrasting red centers. Some unopened buds, still cloaked in their white protective sepals, add to the textural richness of the scene.
Plant sedums for a unique fall color contrast; both flourish in full sun.

For a unique fall color complement, sedums can be planted next to red hot poker. As the torch flowers dwindle and mature their burgundy red fruits in the autumn, sedum flowers take center stage and last until winter. Both plants thrive in full sun.

Foxgloves

A macro shot of delicate pink foxglove blooms, their spotted throats like tiny jeweled caverns. The flowers are in various stages of bloom, with some tightly closed and others fully open, revealing their intricate spotted throats. The flowers are highly glossy, reflecting the light like glass.
For hummingbird enthusiasts, foxgloves and Kniphofia are ideal for a pollinator garden.

If you love hummingbirds, foxgloves and Kniphofia are the perfect additions to a pollinator garden. The breathtaking giant tubular shape of foxgloves looks striking next to the tiny tubular flowers that make up torch lily.

Foxgloves are biennials, but they naturally re-seed. They reach up to 5 feet tall and provide a nice backdrop to the 3-4 foot kniphofia blooms.

Ornamental Grasses

A row of tall ornamental grasses, some of which are likely fountain grass, sway gently in the sunlight. Their feathery plumes dance in the breeze, casting delicate shadows on the white wall of a house behind them. The grasses are planted in a xeriscape garden.
Native grasses like big bluestem thrive alongside red hot poker plants in full sun.

Torch lily flowers poking up amongst frilly grass fronds is a gorgeous sight. Many ornamental grasses are not picky about soil or moisture and thrive in the same full sun as red hot poker plants.

Native ornamental grasses like big bluestem and blue grama are drought-tolerant and make a nice back border to a landscape. Be sure to plant the torch lilies further toward the front and provide at least 36” of space from neighboring grass clumps.

Pests and Diseases

Kniphofia plants are highly desirable in the landscape because they are so resilient to pest and disease issues. If any of these rare problems arise, they are usually very easy to deal with.

Aphids, Spider Mites, Thrips

A close-up reveals a multitude of red spider mites infesting a green leaf. Their crimson bodies and wispy white legs create a stark contrast against the delicate web they have spun. The mites huddle together, some clinging to the web, while others crawl purposefully toward the leaf, ready to feed.
Humid areas are prone to sap-sucking pests; use water or neem oil for protection.

Sap-sucking pests most commonly attack plants in areas with extra humid summers. You can spray plants with a heavy blast of water or, if severe, treat the leaves with diluted neem oil or horticultural soap. The opposite occurs with mites, though, who prefer dry soils. Proper watering should deter them.

Snails and Slugs

A close-up of a common garden snail perched atop a vibrant red torch lily flower. The snail's shell, a mottled brown, stands out against the flower's fiery petals. The soft focus blurs the edges of the snail and flower, lending them an air of delicacy and otherworldliness.
Well-drained soil and foliage removal near the base can prevent slug and snail damage in wet climates.

Slimy slugs and snails occasionally attack young plants in wet climates. The best prevention is growing in thoroughly drained soil and reducing the amount of foliage around the base of the crown where snails or slugs might hide. You can also try beer traps or slug and snail bait.

Root or Crowns Rot

A haunting close-up reveals a plant's life force surrendered. Once-proud roots, now dark, mushy fingers, cling to damp soil, choked by a sinister carpet of algae and mold. This silent tragedy whispers of overwatered depths and suffocated hopes.
To prevent root or crown rot in torch lilies, amend the soil with drainage materials like compost, bark, or peat moss.

The roots or crowns of torch lilies can rot if grown in soggy, waterlogged soils. They do not tolerate standing water. The easiest prevention is to thoroughly amend soils with drainage-promoting materials like compost, shredded bark, peat moss, or vermiculite.

If plants appear wilted, yellowing, or foul-smelling from the soil level, lift them with a shovel and check the rhizomes for signs of rot. It is difficult to save a plant with rotten roots, so your best bet is to amend the soil and replant with a fresh seedling.

Plant Uses

Standing tall and proud, a field of plants basks in the tropical sun. Their fiery blooms, a mix of crimson and gold, paint a stunning contrast against the emerald-green backdrop. This photo captures the exotic beauty of these tropical flowers.
Use this ornamental perennial in temperate landscapes.

Red hot poker is predominately used as an ornamental perennial plant in temperate or subtropical landscapes. It works great as a border plant, single specimen, mass planting, or meadow garden accent. It is also used in traditional South African folk medicine.

Final Thoughts

This easy-to-grow flower provides an exotic garden appeal with minimal maintenance. As long as you give it well-drained soil and plant at the proper depth (don’t bury the crown!), the plant will thrive with little maintenance. Extra water during hot summers will boost the blooms. 

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A regal crown of thorns adorned with slender thorn stems, showcasing nature's intricate design. Delicate pink flowers bloom amidst the thorny crown, adding a touch of softness to the resilient structure.

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