Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The plant that's the Red Hot Poker in my side for the week

Species name: Kniphofia uvaria

Common name: Torch lily, Red Hot Poker Plant

Location: Ontario

I'm not going to lie on this one, I had a devil of a time coming up with a name for this plant. You'd think with something so unique-looking that it would be an easy ID, but such is not the case for me! I figured I'd give an explanation for how I identify new plants (new to me, at least) without the use of a microscope and technical identification keys. I'm sure I'm not the only amateur botanist that doesn't have access regularly to these tools!

First, there's nothing in my Peterson Field Guide of wildflowers that looks anything like this, so at least I could figure out that it's non-native, and non-invasive. Usually when a plant is non-native but has invasive tendencies, the plant makes it into their book. Second, this plant looks like it would have tropical origins to me; it just has "that feeling" to me. That doesn't make sense, however, since I live in Ontario and this plant has been in the same place two years in a row. There's the possibility it's been planted in the same spot for two straight years, but that seems like way too much effort than it's worth, so now we're down to it having to be at least somewhat temperate. Third, "red/orange bell-shaped flowers in a spike" returns so many hits on Google images it's mind-boggling so I needed to come up with something that returned fewer results and results that were more relevant to the plant I'm trying to identify.

When I was searching for a proper identification, I clued in that narrowing down how it grows is a helpful first step. Even without going back outside to dig one up, I know this plant grows from a bulb; it just has "that feel." If you look at the first picture and use your imagination, it looks like a small, thin-leaved Amaryllis with different flowers, and anyone who's ever planted an Amaryllis around Christmas knows they grow from bulbs. So there's a first clue. The first possibility that this generates according to Google image is a genus called Lachenalia, a group of about 120 species that grow from bulbs. The most common of these is Lachenalia bulbifera, but that's incredibly rarely grown as an outdoor plant in northern North America (if ever) and all of the rest of the species are either endemic to Namibia (and likely not grown far from there) or critically endangered. Like Occam's Razor dictates, the chance of this being one of the Lachenalia species I couldn't find a picture for is incredibly unlikely. This is Canada, not a tropical desert. So onto option two! The second option for a group of plants that this might fit into is the genus Velthemia, which is only composed of two species that are easily distinguished. Unfortunately, both species in this genus have much wider leaves that are much more leathery and have a wavy margin (compared to these almost grass-like leaves of this plant) so there's no way it could be a Velthemia. Again, there's a possibility that it could be a previously unrecognized species, but "when you hear hoofbeats, assume horses not zebras if living in North America." So off to find a horse! The last option that I stumbled across is the genus Kniphofia, a group of about 70 species of plants native to Africa. We have our "EUREKA!!!" moment!

As far as I can tell, Kniphofia as a genus has only become popular as an ornamental plant in northern North America recently. If this has anything to do with our (generally) warmer winters and drier summers I can't say. It had been introduced to Australia and New Zealand where it escaped and is now considered an environmental weed so we should all exert caution when choosing this plant as an ornamental in warmer locales. This particular species of K. uvaria is native to South Africa. The common name of this plant comes from the fact that when the inflorescence is young, the flowers within each inflorescence vary in colour from yellow to red based on how recently they've opened so giving a general look of fire. Interestingly enough, despite the flowers opening and being fertilized at different times the seeds all seem to develop and are released at the same time from the plant.