Photo by Melody

Clivia, A Houseplant Gift from Africa

By Marie Harrison (can2growFebruary 22, 2012

Clivia is a popular houseplant or garden plant for tropical climates. Commonly called bush lily, flame of the forest, or simply Clivia, this South African plant has attributes that make it a much sought after favorite.

Gardening picture

ImageHistory: In September of 1813, English naturalist William J. Burchell discovered the bush lily at the mouth of the Great Fish River in South Africa. It was not until 1828, however, that Kew botanist John Lindley first described Clivia nobilis. He named it Clivia after baroness Lady Clive, Baroness of Northumberland, and nobilis because she was of the nobility. This gives preference to the pronunciation KLY-vee-uh instead of KLIV-vee-uh; however, the second pronunciation seems to be the one most commonly used.

            Sir William Jackson Hooker described Clivia miniata (meaning the color of red lead) in 1854. A couple of years later, Hooker described and named C. gardenii. Much later (1943), Clivia caulescens (so named because it tends to grow on an elongated stem or trunk in the wild) was named by Dr. R.A. Dyer. More recently (2001), conservation officer Johannes Afrika found a new species that has been identified as Clivia mirabilis (mirabilis meaning astonishing, to be wondered at).

Physical characteristics

            Clivia is an evergreen perennial with ropelike, fleshy roots. Clusters (umbels) of large trumpet- to funnel-shaped flowers are borne on sturdy, rigid stems. Plants typically grow 1½ to 2 feet tall. Ornamental red or yellow berries follow the flowers.

            ImageFlowers may be solid colored or have different color zones in the basal, median or tip parts in varying proportions. Colors include cream to yellow, apricot, peach, green, various pastels, and darker oranges and reds. Versicolor types have sepals and petals of different colors, and some fancy types have blotched, striped, or bleached colorations. Leaves may be thin and straplike to very broad, and they may be solid green or variegated.

Cultural Preferences

            Clivias grow best in bright light but cannot tolerate full sun. Indoors, grow them near a north-facing window or other window that is protected from the sun's full rays. Outdoors, place them in a shady location. Clivias are not hardy in areas with freezing weather, so be sure to protect them if a freeze is expected.

            Grow clivias in well-draining potting mix. Water during the growing season when the soil feels dry to the touch, and be sure that it drains completely. Do not let them sit in a tray filled with water as they prefer to be kept on the dry side. Overwatering promotes rot, and misting the leaves can encourage disease. Image

            Let your clivia have a period of rest in late fall. During this time, keep the plant in a cool room (below 50°F) and do not water it. If the plant wilts, water it just enough to barely moisten the soil. Bud formation takes place during this resting period. Continue to water sparingly until buds appear between the leaves. Then resume the regular watering schedule. Bloom should follow in six to twelve weeks. After the plant has finished blooming, remove the flower stalk. Keep well-groomed by removing any dead or withered leaves. Fertilize with water-soluble fertilizer (20-20-20) after the plant has flowered at half the recommended strength. A monthly application should be sufficient. Stop fertilizing by mid-September.  

            Clivias bloom best when pot-bound. Do not worry if some of the fleshy roots appear above the potting mix, as this is normal. Repot every 3 to 5 years by placing your plant in a container about two inches in diameter larger than the old one. Use a well-draining potting mix with at least 50% organic matter. Most quality commercial mixes work well.    


        Dr. Jim Ault, director of Ornamental Plant Research at the Chicago Botanic Garden, explains that clivias are slow-growing and difficult to propagate. "If you grow clivias from seed, it takes three to five years for them to bloom for the first time," he says. "The big, marvelous plants you see that fill a whole container take five to 10 years or more to reach that size." Adding to clivia's high price tag is the fact that they cannot be propagated by tissue culture, a process that can produce hundreds of clones from a small piece of plant tissue. Unfortunately, seeds and division are the only methods available for propagating clivia.

      Breeding clivias is serious business to some breeders. Top plants bring as much as $50,000 in China, and seeds from these plants may sell for $12,000. However, most growers are not quite that serious about their work. They breed them because they love the plants and are excited by new cultivars and types that result from their efforts.

            We who just enjoy growing clivias because they are easy-to-grow, dependable, attractive plants, owe a debt of gratitude to the people who continue work on this exciting group of plants. We are always on the quest for ones to add to our collections.   

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Species:  (GRIN (Government Resources Information Network) does not list Clivia gardenii and C. mirabilis as species.) However, they are included in the literature of various bulb and clivia societies.

   Clivia miniata - orange flowers broadly funnel form with yellow throat; straplike, deep green leaves

  Clivia nobilis - smaller than C. miniata; 40 to 60 flowers per umbel; pendulous red or yellow flowers with green tips; short, narrow, dark green foliage

   Clivia caulescens - rare species that produces stems (trunks) up to 18 inches tall; long leaves up to 2 inches wide; umbels usually contain 15 to 20 drooping, curved, deep salmon-red flowers tipped with a ¼- to ½-inch wide green and yellow band along the edge

   Clivia gardenii - 10 to 15 narrowly funnel form, semi-pendulous flowers per umbel; pale to rich orange tinged with showy, greenish tips and protruding stamens; leaves more pointed at tips

   Clivia mirabilis - pendant flowers on long pedicils with neon-like colors from light pastels to red; a recently discovered species (2001) existing only on the protected Oorlogskloof Nature Preserve; extremely rare; has median white striation on upper leaf surfaces; basal part of leaves forming the leaf sheath flushed deep maroon; tolerates full sun and arid conditions; very large root system enables it to survive periods of extreme drought

 Thanks to Dave's Garden contributors Kell, Bloomoon, and Revlar for their photographs that are featured in this article. Also, thanks to Gideon Botha, South African clivia expert, for permission to use his excellent photographs. Mouse over individual pictures for identification and credits.

  About Marie Harrison  
Marie HarrisonServing as a Master Flower Show Judge, a Floral Design Instructor, instructor of horticulture for National Garden Clubs, and a University of Florida Master Gardener immerses me in gardening/teaching activities. In addition to these activities, I contribute regularly to Florida Gardening magazine and other publications. I am author of four gardening books, all published by Pineapple Press, Sarasota, Florida. Read about them and visit me at

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