Clivia miniataSo how did my Pennsylvania aunt come by a plant which originated in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa? Discovered in the late 1850s, the clivia became a houseplant shortly thereafter, though--almost a century later--a 1947 edition of Bailey's Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture called it "too costly to be very popular." That's a description which remains true to this day, as flowering-size plants often run between $25 and $35 each, more for the rarer yellow or white varieties.

What Bailey probably didn't take into account was the fact that mature specimens make offsets, which generous gardeners share. So even dirt-poor farm women like my aunt and me didn't have much trouble getting our hands on one!

A clivia of blooming size is still to be prized, however, and I suspect that one of my other gardening aunts claimed Marie's after her death. I was thrilled to swap for a juvenile plant myself when I got the chance, though I can't now remember what I traded for it. If you start small like I did, be prepared to wait several years for your young 'un to grow to the 12 to 14-leaves size required for bloom.

The clivia prefers bright, indirect light, so I usually keep mine under a tree during summer. Those of you in zones 9 through 11 can grow the plant in the ground outdoors in a similarly shady position.

Clivia gardeniiTo flower, a blooming-size and preferably root-bound clivia needs to experience a period during the fall where the nighttime temperatures drop into the 40s to 50s Fahrenheit and its soil remains dry. Different sources disagree on the length of this period, but it can be anywhere from 1 Clivia nobilismonth to 4 months, with some experts recommending that you keep the plant completely dry from October through January.

I don't have any problem providing the cool temperatures, as I usually leave my houseplants outdoors until the last possible moment--usually about mid-October. Occasionally, I remember to move my clivia underneath the porch roof during autumn to provide the dry part of the prescription too, but neglected to do that last fall. Once indoors, the plant usually takes up residence near a cool east-facing window with my cacti, where it only gets watered about once a week.

On years when my clivia is running according to schedule, it flowers in April. Sometimes, however, it may wait until summer to perform. I suspect this may be one of those years, since I haven't seen a flower stalk yet. So I really should pay more attention to keeping the plant dry during the designated time period!

Clivia nobilisMiniata isn't the only clivia species, just the most popular one. In fact, the genus was named after an aristocrat who grew one of the others. Lady Clive reportedly was the first gardener in England to flower Clivia nobilis in a greenhouse. It and most of the other species--including Clivia caulescens and gardenii--have more droopy and tubular flowers than miniata does, generally red or orange with green or yellow tips.

Clivia miniataThe seeds can be somewhat tricky to germinate and should be sown almost immediately after being removed from the red berries, preferably after those seeds have been washed with a fungicide first. Press each one halfway into a sterile medium such as sand, vermiculite, or perlite, with its brown spot up, since the root emerges from the side opposite to the spot. The seeds can take 2 weeks to 6 months to germinate, and seedlings will require at least 3 to 5 years to reach blooming size.

As Tovah Martin warns in The Unexpected Houseplant, a full-grown clivia "will take up a hefty chunk of real estate in your home" and "spends two thirds of the year (longer for some people) doing nothing." But some of us still can't resist an easy-care plant which doesn't require sun to light its flamboyant flame!


Photos: The thumbnail and larger version of the Clivia miniata photo are both my own. The Clivia gardenii photo is by Uleli, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and this license, and the public domain Clivia nobilis photo by Rotational, also courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The antique Clivia miniata and nobilis images are from 1854 and 1828 issues of Curtis's Botanical Magazine, courtesy of plantillustrations.org.