The Agonies of travel – or red hot poker story


Maddening. I could hardly ask the train to stop. Somewhere, between Doncaster and Gainsborough Lea Road, probably half way or so, on the right hand side of the track as the train clanks towards Lincoln, there grows one of the most marvellous red hot pokers (Kniphofia) I have ever seen. A great big clump on a slight embankment by the track, in an entirely scrubby piece of landscape with no garden or human habitation in view, it was the same sort of size as the gorgeous Lord Roberts (which is over by now), but instead of that variety’s yard high spikes of orange flushed scarlet lake flowers, this had tawny flowers, maturing to golden yellow. The clump must have sported nearly a dozen pokers in full fig.

A hugely handsome mystery – had it been planted by some gardener keen to taunt the passing traveller? Had some gardener, suddenly gripped with unreasonable hatred for the genus, flung it from the carriage in a rage. Had some animal, frightened by the passing train, released the seed in its alarm. Though the big species seem to be mostly pollinated by sunbirds, I shouldn’t think that there are many sunbirds in Doncaster. The seedpods are (as far as I know), small capsules, dry by the time that the seed matures, but the seeds are sometimes sticky, and as many red hot pokers grow in quite swampy conditions, it may be that birds get seed attached to them when they come to drink or wash.

Anyway, there it was – one of the most lovely plants I’ve seen for a while. Once in the Lincolnshire garden (where several varieties and species thrive), we visited some likely nurseries, and though Hall Farm had a lovely coral red late flowering one called …… , it was half the size of the one I’d seen.

Even if I walked back along the track to bag a piece, my Borders garden, with its tangle of vegetation, wouldn’t suit it. None really tolerate much shading out – so I don’t know how they manage in their native locales, where the dampness must encourage the strong growth of competitors. Perhaps with stronger light levels, things aren’t so bad.

I’ve just rescued an unnamed small autumn flowering yellow from the onward march of Dicentra Stuart Boothman (a serious thug, disguising world conquering ambition with its modest blue-green foliage), and a fine amber-yellow one, as tall as the railwayside one, which is getting engulfed in the white phlox with which it was meant to be teamed (and looked great for a few seasons).

If you have a clump that needs similar rescue, you’ll find that the clumps separate out into single rosettes of leaves – easily potted up if you want to grow them on before assigning them to another piece of garden.

Incidentally, if you want to try crossing varieties, hand pollination is best – though butterflies can do some for you, a paint brush does it far better.  I don’t know much about the genetics of the group, but there so seem to be  barriers to crossing between some of the species – so however diligent you are with a brush, sometimes no seed will result.

This is written from the London garden, of which more anon….


About david stuart

garden writer and journalist, and occasionally a designer, with a garden in the Scottish borders, and his pal's gardens in Edinburgh, London, and Lincolnshire. They keep both of us very, very busy. Books I've written listed on my website, and dozens of articles and garden and plant pictures. Currently working on several new projects. One of these was to return to painting - see the blog - and which is proving exciting! or, more fun, have a look at
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