torch lily is an attractive plant with erect, grey-green, deeply
keeled leaves, forming large clumps with attractive white to greenish
white or greenish yellow flowers borne on tall stalks in spring.
This is a robust plant with 8-12 strap-shaped leaves, 500-1 200
x 15-35 mm. The flower stalk (peduncle) can grow up to 1.8 m tall
and is topped by a very dense, cylindrical inflorescence which tapers
towards the tip. It comprises many tubular, greenish white to cream-coloured
flowers which open from slightly red-tinged buds in spring (October).
In the subspecies autumnalis the flowers are yellower and
brighter and occur in autumn..
The torch lily occurs mainly in grassland along streams. It prefers
heavy clay soils that are inundated with water during the warm summer
months. It occurs naturally in the interior of South Africa, west
of the Drakensberg escarpment in the far eastern parts of the Northern
Cape, Free State, northern Eastern Cape and is widespread in the
high-lying parts of the northern provinces of Gauteng, North-West,
Limpopo and Mpumalanga.
Kniphofia is named in honour of J.H. Kniphof (1704-1763)
who was a professor of medicine at Erfurt University in Germany.
The name ensifolia is derived from Latin, meaning sword-shaped,
in reference to the shape of the leaves.
There are two subspecies: subsp. ensifolia which is widespread
and is described above, and subsp. autumnalis which occurs
in the Harrismith District of Free State and bears flowers with
a yellowish tinge in autumn (February-March).
Kniphofia ensifolia belongs to a large genus of some 70
species, many of which are attractive garden subjects. The flowers
vary from white through yellow to deep orange and even almost black
in the case of K. typhoides.
The range of size and leaf character is remarkable, from tiny plants
of not much more than 300 mm to giant species like K. multiflora,
which can produce flower spikes of over three metres in height and
recurving leaves of the same length.
Kniphofia ensifolia is found growing naturally along watercourses
usually in marshy soil where water is abundant, it enjoys wet feet,
although in cultivation it can be grown in normal garden soil if
enough water is provided. It is also adapted to being burnt in veld
fires in its natural habitat. It survives by storing water in its
thick roots and retaining the following season's buds below ground
where they are not damaged.
The flowers are rich in sweet nectar which is relished by nectiferous
birds especially sunbirds. Insects are also attracted by the nectar
and they in turn attract insectivorous birds to the garden.
Although there seems to be no direct reference to the use of this
species in traditional medicine or folklore, there are a few other
members of the group, which are indeed listed as being used as snake
deterrents as well as use of the roots for relieving chest complaints.
Other species are also listed as being used by the Xhosa women for
bringing good luck to their children.
Growing Kniphofia ensifolia
This is a an old garden plant. Taylor (1985) writes
that Francis Masson introduced it to gardens before 1786.
The torch lily is a useful garden and landscape plant for many
applications as it is deciduous, becoming totally leafless during
the dry winter months, providing an opportunity to plant winter-flowering
annuals in the same area. It has attractively architectural foliage
which provides a backdrop for softer-textured perennial planting
in the foreground. The attractive, nectar-rich, spring flowers also
draw birds to the garden. Coming from high altitudes and being dormant
in winter makes it suitable for colder gardens.
Kniphofia ensifolia is easily propagated from fresh seed
sown in spring in seed trays or frames. The seed should be lightly
covered and kept moist. The seed usually germinates within 3-6 weeks
and should be left until they are approximately 50 mm high before
pricking them out into deeper trays or cold frames where they can
be grown until they are large enough to be planted into individual
containers and ultimately into the garden.
Mature plants may also be divided into several smaller clumps,
this is best done at the end of winter before the onset of the growing
- Arnold, T.H. & De Wet, B.C. (eds). 1993. Plants of southern
Africa: names and distribution. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey
of South Africa No. 62. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
- Codd, L.E. 1968. The South African species of Kniphofia. Bothalia
- Fabian, A. & Germishuizen, G. 1982. Transvaal wild flowers.
- Fabian, A. & Germishuizen, G. 1997. Wildflowers of northern
South Africa. Fernwood Press, Cape Town.
- Hutchings, A. et al. 1996. Zulu medicinal plants. An inventory.
University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg.
- Pooley, E. 1998. A field guide to wild flowers of KwaZulu-Natal
and the eastern region. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
- Taylor, J. 1985. Kniphofia - survey. The Plantsman 7:128-160
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden.
With additions by Yvonne Reynolds