The Regal Clivia

A young clivia. As plants age, they develop multiple offsets with thick leaves; 3-5 bloom spikes are not uncommon on mature specimens.

My love affair with clivias started long before I ever owned one, a case of transference from my childhood gardening hero, Thalassa Cruso. I’ve written about Thalassa before (and in fact, I’m working with WGBH to get her programs back on the air, more on that later – stay tuned!) but for the moment all you need to know is that in her first book, Making Things Grow, Thalassa describes an almost epic battle to get a rare yellow blooming clivia through US customs from England, and then a whole subsequent series of misadventures to get the bloody thing to bloom. The story was so charming, and her desire to obtain this particular plant so strong, that I was hooked at once from afar, without ever having seen one. For years (well, let’s make that decades) I kept my eyes open for this mysterious yellow clivia – to no avail – then finally one day, again chuckling at the memory of the story, I decided to look on the Internet. Of course, there I found it immediately, and immediately I ordered it, wondering why I hadn’t thought of looking for it online sooner. (As a child of the pre-Internet age, I sometimes forget you can whistle up almost anything these days.) At any rate, that was four years ago, and I’ve since been rewarded with a spectacular month-long bloom each winter, beginning right about now.

One of the many variegated clivias; in the Far East, clivias are valued mostly for their foliage. This is a "Fukurin" or Track Stripe variety.

Species of clivia (pronounced CLIVE ee a) are native to the Horn of Africa, and were first brought to Europe in the 1820 by the British explorers William Burchell and John Bowie. (Kew Botanist John Lindley named the flower after Lady Charlotte Florentia Clive, Duchess of Northumberland.) The species most often grown today, Clivia miniata, arrived in England in the early 1850’s and quickly became de rigeur in Victorian conservatories. Clivias have remained popular house plants ever since, prized as much for their handsome green foliage, as for their orange to yellow to red lily-like flowers. (Wikipedia, in one of its odder moments states: “Often people enjoy their leaves more than their bloom. This is especially common with Chinese people, who prefer broad, hard, erect leaves. The width to length ratio of the leaf should be around 2:3. The leaves should be hard and erect. The leaves should be yellow-green with dark green veins.” Indeed!  While I can’t attest to the erect nature of my clivia leaves, I can agree they are quite lovely (especially the variegated varieties), and I can also vouchsafe that clivias make excellent indoor plants for lower light conditions. (Note I say “lower light” as opposed to “full sun”, not, “no light.”) The main problem most people seem to have with clivias is getting them to bloom. The answer to that is really quite simple: they need a period of cool each fall to set buds; if you have a partially heated sunroom or cool window where the night time temperatures routinely fall into the 40-50s, that’s ideal. Other than this hereditary quirk, clivias are trouble-free, unbothered by most household pests.

In fact, the only problem with clivias is their cost: as the plants are quite slow growing,  often taking up to 4 years to come to bloom, rare varieties can get expensive. Fortunately, there are many vendors online (I bought mine at Grassy Knoll Exotic Plants) who sell bloom-age plants at a reasonable price, allowing you, like me, to become an instant admirer of the regal clivia.

Until next time, I’m Michael Weishan, for Old House, Old Garden.


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