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Red hot pokers needs to establish root system

Jessica Walliser
| Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012

Q: I purchased a Red Hot Poker through the mail. It came bare-root in a baggie with no soil, just peat moss. This will be the plant's second year and it still hasn't bloomed. Is there anything I can do to encourage it• Such as fertilizer, etc. I would appreciate any advice.

A: Red hot pokers, also called torch lilies, are in the genus Kniphofia and hail from Africa. They are interesting garden plants and are fully hardy here in Western Pennsylvania. The strap-like leaves are reminiscent of daylily foliage, though they are certainly coarser and more upright -- and can grow 2 feet or more in length. It's the flowers, though, that make this plant a valuable perennial for the garden.

The small tubular flowers are organized bottlebrush-fashion in a spike that rises a foot or more above the plant tops. The newest flowers open at the top of the spike as it grows and are very attractive to hummingbirds. Flower color can range from bright red to orange and sunny yellow depending on the cultivar and maturity of the bloom.

Red hot pokers enjoy full sun and well-drained soils with moderate amounts of organic matter. The roots are prone to rot in heavy clay soil so additions of compost or well-aged horse manure to the planting site are good for helping overcome such drainage issues. They also are fairly drought tolerant and are considered to be deer resistant.

Because your original plant came bare-root, it began from a small division and has probably spent the past two years establishing a healthy root and crown system, which is exactly what you want to happen first. Without a well-established root system, the heavy blooms can't be supported. I would guess that this year or next the plant will throw its first flowers. There is really nothing you can do to speed the process. The plant just needs more time.

For gardeners desiring faster flowers from this plant, purchasing a specimen in a gallon-sized pot from a local nursery might be a better bet, albeit a more expensive one. Bare-root is a wonderful way to purchase a lot of plants for minimal cost, but patience is a must as it can take several years for the plant to reach full maturity.

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