They say that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I have always thought that cliché was a little dubious when applied to people; what doesn't kill you is just as likely to wear you down until you just can't take it anymore. But what about flower buds?
That is the burning question posed by my annoyingly late-blooming kniphofia rooperi, commonly known as red hot poker or torch lily. This obnoxious tease of a plant sucked me in at a summer Plant Delights Open House about 5 years ago. It wasn't flowering, but I knew it had flamboyant orange and yellow blooms in early fall, and thought it would look fantastic with my swamp sunflowers. Into the garden it went.
That was July. September came, but no buds. October came. The swamp sunflowers were in their glory, but still no buds. Finally, at Thanksgiving, an army of buds appeared. They were a day late and a dollar short - the sunflowers were long gone and the garden was in winter mode - but I figured the plant was just settling in to its new home and would bloom at the proper time next year. Not surprisingly, a few days later the temperatures dropped and the buds bit the dust.
For the next three years, my kniphofia rooperi followed a predictable pattern: buds in November, death by frostbite in December. But last year, thanks to an unusually mild winter, the plant actually bloomed, providing an explosion of color from December to February. The flowers are every bit as flamboyant as I'd hoped, but they looked a little ridiculous out there all by themselves. Sunflowers? Gone. Red sage? Gone. Hummingbirds, bees, butterflies? Gone. Picture Madonna strutting her stuff in an empty theater and you'll get the idea.
A December-blooming kniphofia rooperi is not a plant for central North Carolina. Invariably, we get our first killing frost around Thanksgiving, and while the plant itself is cold-hardy to zone 7, the buds call it quits when the temperature hits the 20s. Yet like it or not, December-blooming kniphofia rooperi is what I have. Plant Delights owner Tony Avent, whom I buttonholed at a subsequent Open House, thinks it must be some sort of genetic variation. His advice? Give it to someone in Florida.
It's Thanksgiving time again, and my kniphofia rooperi is up to its usual tricks. It slept through the swamp sunflower-fest in October, but last Thursday, right on cue, it was loaded with buds. Also right on cue, night-time temperatures are now consistently below freezing. Yesterday, for the second time in a week, the low was in the 20s. Everything withered - except, miraculously, the kniphofia buds. Can they hang on long enough to bloom? Could they possibly have developed cold-hardiness? Is that scientifically possible? Time will tell.
I am not ready to give up on my kniphofia. Next spring, I hope to move it to the front yard, near the pyracantha and the coral bark willow. The three would make an eye-catching winter display, if I could figure out a way to keep the damned buds from freezing.
If not, I suppose I can give it to someone in Florida.
The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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