History: 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).
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.
Flowers 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.
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.
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.