By: Elisabeth Ginsburg
From the last week of November through the first of the New Year, many of us are surrounded by colorful seasonal decorations. But then January arrives and all that glitters is gone. To stave off Seasonal Affective Disorder, or at least help tide you over until the first crocuses push up through the cold earth, invest in house plants that bloom naturally during the winter months. Clivia miniata, occasionally called “Natal lily” or “fire lily”, but most often known as just plain “clivia”, is one of the best.
With bold orange or yellow clusters of trumpet flowers blooming atop tall (18-24”) stalks and strappy green leaves, clivia is reminiscent of other well-loved Amaryllis family members, like Nerine and Crinum. It is a perennial, but is only winter hardy in USDA Zones 9-11. The upward-facing clivia trumpets are somewhat smaller than those of another relative, the showy amaryllis (Hippeastrum app.), but each cluster contains more flowers. Clivia colors are dramatic—bright orange is the most common—but it is not hard to find pale or bright yellow varieties.
The genus was named in honor of an Englishwoman, Lady Charlotte Florentia Clive, wife of an early nineteenth century Duke of Northumberland. Clivia is native to coastal areas in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa, where the orange-flowered form was discovered by English plant hunters in the early 1820’s. The first plants to bloom in England did so in 1827 in a greenhouse at Syon House, one of the Northumberlands’ residences. Much later, in 1888, a rarer, yellow-flowered clivia was discovered, also in the Natal.
The colorful flowers were a hit and clivia became a “must have” for wealthy Victorian plant collectors. As the nineteenth century progressed, the cheerful orange blooms made frequent appearances in conservatories and greenhouses. Fast forward nearly 100 years, to the second half of the twentieth century, and breeders in the United States, Australia and elsewhere were hard at work enlarging the number of forms and colors, especially in the yellow range. Hybridization has also resulted in peach, pink and red-flowered forms, though they are quite expensive. While clivia hybridizing is not difficult, it takes many plant generations to produce strong, reliable new strains that come true from seed.
These days, orange and yellow clivia are available at reasonable prices from many traditional and online outlets. For instant color, buy blooming specimens, which are the most expensive. However, if you are willing to be patient and play the long game, you can get a smaller plant for relatively little and nurture it to blooming size. Remember that the pictures you see online or in catalogs are probably photos of mature plants. Your clivia may not have as many blooms, especially in its first year or two of flowering.
Whether your clivia is mature or somewhat smaller, pot it up using a high-quality potting mixture, like Fafard® Professional Potting Mix. The size of the decorative pot should only be a little larger than the nursery pot. Clivia is fond of close quarters.
The care regimen is reasonably easy. If yours is already in bloom, position the pot where you can see the flowers best, water when the top of the soil feels dry, and enjoy the show for up to a month. Afterwards, place in a sunny window and continue to water and feed once a month with a balanced fertilizer diluted according to package directions. If you can do so, let your clivia have a summer vacation outside in a lightly shaded location that is protected from wind and other weather-related disturbances.
If you live in a cold-winter area, bring the plant indoors before the first frost. To stimulate winter bloom, stop watering around October 1, and put the clivia in a cool place, ideally with a temperature between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit, for at least five weeks and preferably a bit longer. When the dormancy period is over, bring the plant back into the warmth and light and begin watering again. Flower stalks should appear after a few weeks. Keep up this routine for a few years, and you will most likely see more flowers every year. When repotting, which should only happen after several years, do not increase the pot size dramatically or flowering may be affected.
Unlike some other decorative plants, clivia is an excellent long-term investment. It is well worth it to see some floral light at the end of the mid-winter tunnel.
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