With Clivias, Patience Truly Is a Virtue

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Clivias in flower and fruit. Photo: Deborah Silver, pinterest.ca

The clivia or Kaffir lily (Clivia miniata) is certainly among the very best flowering houseplants. What other indoor plant has the constitution of a cast iron plant, yet such an abundance of beautiful flowers! On top of a rigid, thick stalk, it produces a dense cluster upright-facing orange bells with a yellow heart that last about a month, highlighted by a fan of broad, leathery, dark green strap-shaped leaves much like those of an amaryllis (Hippeastrum), but evergreen. No other houseplant offers such flower power in return for so little effort!

But if the clivia is so extraordinary, why don’t we see it more often in people’s homes? And there is indeed a reason for that: it’s because it is as slow as a herd of snails traveling through peanut butter: slow to grow and slow to bloom. And many gardeners, beginning ones especially, just aren’t very patient: they want instant results. If that’s your case, there’s no use reading any further: the clivia is for patient gardeners only.

Clivias As Houseplants

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Young clivia in bloom for the first time. Photo: http://www.whiteflowerfarm.com

In cold-climate areas, you’ll often see a shipment of young clivias already in bud or bloom show up your local garden center in midwinter, each with just one fan of leaves and a single flower stalk. They’re not either cheap: at about $40 (€35), they’re certainly at the high end of what I like to spend on a plant. Still, maybe you take the plunge and buy one, assuming that, since the plant is in bloom, it must be mature. But no. By carefully controlling the growing conditions, greenhouse growers are able to force young clivias into bloom before their time. As a result, the plant probably won’t bloom again under average home conditions for another 3 or 4 years, when it does reach its full maturity. That can be quite a disappointment when you don’t expect it.

That being the case, why don’t garden centers sell mature clivias, ready to flower abundantly and annually? That’s because they take so long to produce (years and years in an expensively heated greenhouse!) that they would simply cost more than the market would bear: would you really be willing to pay $100 (€75) or more for what is, after all, a houseplant of a fairly modest size (only about 16 to 20 inches [40 to 50 cm] tall)?

If you’re a patient gardener, might I therefore suggest snapping up one of the more moderately priced young clivias? Then treat it well (not that it will require a lot of attention) and wait patiently. When it does begin to bloom, you will be amazed, especially as, once mature, your clivia will then bloom faithfully every year for 50 years and more. In fact, most mature clivias will flower twice a year, occasionally even more. Expect at least one blooming session in winter (it’s their normal season), but it’s certainly not unusual to see them bloom again in the summer and sometimes yet again in the fall.

Origin

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Clivias in the Botanical Garden of Bloemfontein in South Africa, their country of origin. Photo: aristonorganic.wordpress.com

Clivia miniata hails from dense forests of eastern South Africa where it grows as an understorey plant, accustomed to a subtropical climate (hot summers, cool winters) and surprisingly deep shade. Although it belongs to the Amaryllidaceae family, the clivia doesn’t produce a true bulb, only a thickened stem base. It was named after Lady Charlotte Florentia Clive, the Duchess of Northumberland, and thus the name should theoretically be pronounced CLEYE-vee-a, not CLI-vee-a … yet I mostly hear the latter. And that’s all right: there’s no need to quibble about how to pronounce plant names.

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Variegated clivias. Photo: Strever, National Garden Bureau.

While the original—and by far the most popular—clivia has orange flowers, there are also varieties with yellow flowers that are true to type from seed and also many hybrids with a wide range of traits, including many different flower colors (from near-white to green, pink and dark, dark red), variegated foliage and much more, but these collector plants are generally very expensive.

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Clivia gardenii. Photo: http://www.coclivia.com

Then there are also other species of clivia to consider, such as C. gardenia and C. nobilis, all with drooping tubular flowers rather than the upright cups of C. miniata, as well as interspecific hybrids (hybrids between these species). Usually they are as easy to grow as C. miniata.

Personally, I’ve long dreamt of owning a variegated clivia, but its exorbitant price has always put me off. I do own a yellow clivia that I grew from seed and even that was expensive. It seems to me I paid $20 (€17) for three seeds, much more than I have ever paid for any other seed. It took 6 years before I saw the first flowers … but now my yellow clivia usually blooms twice a year and I couldn’t be happier with my investment.

Low, Low Care

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Yellow clivia, often sold under the name Clivia miniata citrina, although I’m not sure the botanical name is legitimate. Photo: naturescolours.com.au

As mentioned, the clivia is one of the easiest houseplants to grow. It can take almost any indoor conditions you can give it. From full sun (full indoor sun, that is: much less intense than full outdoor sun) to fairly deep shade, just about any indoor temperature above freezing, and even neglectful and irregular watering. Plus it can go years without needing repotting and seems to get along fine with without fertilizer. It is, in fact, the poster child of a plant that tolerates benign neglect.

That said, if you want to bring a young clivia to maturity as rapidly as possible, try medium light, distinctly cool winter temperatures (45–50 °F/8–10 °C) and watering only when the soil is dry to the touch. Moreover, once your clivia reaches blooming size, it’s best to simply stop watering in late fall (November in the Northern Hemisphere), resuming when the flower buds appear, usually in late winter, as this helps stimulate taller flower stalks that rise above the foliage rather than remaining partially hidden. In spite of months without water, you’ll discover your clivia never really goes fully dormant and its thick foliage won’t even show the slightest trace of wilting.

Should you fertilize a clivia? Probably, as every plant needs some minerals, but only very lightly … and only during the growing season (March to October in the Northern Hemisphere). And don’t repot it too often, because when you do, it often fails to flower the following year. It’s said to “like being rootbound.”

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Your clivia will produce such a huge amount of thick roots that you’ll find it impossible not to slice a few off when you divide the plant. Don’t worry about it: they’ll grow back… eventually! Photo: extravagantgardens.com

You’ll have little choice but to repot your clivia at some point, as it will keep growing over time, producing more and more offsets, slowly filling up the pot. In fact, it may expand so much it actually causes the pot to break apart!

It’s best to repot in spring or summer, shortly after the plant finishes blooming, but you can do so at any season if needs be. Either repot the entire rootball into a larger pot (something you’d likely do to a smaller plant as it grows in size) or divide it into two or three sections of about 3 crowns apiece and repot each in an 8 inch/20 cm pot. Such large divisions recuperate fairly rapidly and should bloom again in about 18 to 24 months. If you need a lot of plants, you can also cut up a mature plant into individual crowns and pot them up in smaller pots, but they may take to 4 to 5 years before they start to bloom again!

Clivias Outdoors

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Clivias in a subtropical climate. Photo: http://www.plantsrescue.com

So far this entire article has been based on the presumption you’ll be growing your clivia indoors, but the clivia also makes an exceptionally beautiful garden plant for mild climates (zones 9b to 11). It can even take a touch of frost, down to -2 ° C for short periods.

Among the many areas where you can grow clivias outdoors are Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Southern California, extreme southern Europe and southern Japan. Where clivias can be grown outdoors, you can usually find them (at least standard orange ones) in local nurseries at quite reasonable prices, even mature plants. And they’re as easy to grow outdoors as in. Just make sure to plant them in well-drained soil in partial to full shade. Full tropical sun won’t be to their liking!

Berries and Seeds

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Clivia seeds add color all year around. Photo: nixpixmix.blogspot.com

Clivia flowers readily self-pollinate, even indoors, and so flowering is generally followed by the formation of round, marble-like dark green berries that slowly turn red (yellow varieties usually produce yellow fruit). They’re very slow to mature, taking a year or more.

Rather than remove the berries, why not leave them on the plant as an added attraction? After all, producing seeds does not seem to interfere with future flowerings or weaken the plant in any way.

Each berry contains a single large seed that you can harvest and sow. You don’t have to wait until the fruit has reached its final color. As soon as the berry has started to soften up, it will be ripe enough to sow. After harvesting, simply sow the seed right away. That’s right, no need to dry the seed and store it (something, oddly enough, many gardeners seem to think seeds need). If you do decide to store it, don’t let it dry out and don’t wait too long: the seed has to be sown within a short period of time, certainly within about 2 months, as clivia seeds simply don’t store well. This short shelf life explains why so few seed houses carry clivia seeds.

To sow the seeds, first clean them well to remove the pulp and membrane that surrounds the seed, then plant them in a pot of moist potting mix, just pressing the seeds without totally covering them. Keep the seeds fairly warm and the substrate slightly moist but never soggy. I like to seal mine inside a clear plastic bag until germination to increase humidity and reduce maintenance.

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Clivia seeds germinating. Photo: mylifeofplants.blogspot.com.

The seeds will probably germinate in about 1 to 5 months. Sometimes the seedling sort of pushes itself out of the soil as it sprouts. If so, just reposition it, punch a hole in the mix directing the thick tap root downward and cover it in mix. As the seedlings grow, move them to their own individual small pots, increasing the pot size as they grow. Remember, growing clivias from seed is going to be a long-term experience: don’t expect any flowers for at least 5 years!

Toxicity

Yes, clivias are slightly toxic to humans and pets, but there is little risk of poisoning: the plant simply doesn’t offer much of interest to nibble on. The main toxin, lycorine, is mostly concentrated in the roots and they’re pretty inaccessible. Little is known about the toxicity of clivias, as poisonings are so very rare.

Where to Find Clivias

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Display at Pine Mountain Nursery, a specialist nursery in Australia. Photo: http://www.pinemountainnursery.com.au

In tropical climes, you can find clivias on sale just about everywhere, but that’s certainly not the case elsewhere. In the northern hemisphere, shipments clivias usually arrive in garden centers towards the end of January or in February, their main blooming season, and if you don’t go plant shopping at just the right season, you may miss them. I suggest calling your garden center and asking them to reserve one for you, just in case.

You may also be able to find clivia plants in your local Chinatown, because it is considered to bring good luck in Asian culture.

As for special varieties (plants with variegated foliage, original colors, cultivar names, etc.), you’ll likely have to look further afield.

Where I live, in Canada, they are simply never available. Yes, GardenImport (thanks Dugald Cameron!) did carry them in the past, but that company is no more. You’ll likely have to import them from elsewhere and that will require an import permit.

There are several suppliers of hybrid clivias in the United States and even more in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Asia. Do an Internet search and you should have no trouble finding a few. Don’t expect these plants to be cheap, though: you need deep pockets if you want to become a clivia collector!

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‘‘Vico Peach’, with peachy pink flowers,  is one of the seed-grown strains available through Chiltern Seeds. Photo: http://www.chilternseeds.co.uk

For those of us unwilling to import plants, given the paperwork involved, there is always the possibility of importing seeds. With very few exceptions, seeds can be shipped all over the world and no import permit is required. And seeds are much less expensive than plants, although they do cost considerably more than most plant seeds. And expect only 2 to 3 seeds per pack.

Do note that clivias don’t come totally true-to-type from seed. However, some fairly stable seed lines have been developed that do give plants nearly identical to their parents. Again, you can do a bit of online searching to find a few sources.

One place to look is Chiltern Seeds, in England. They ship worldwide and regularly offer seeds of a modest range of clivia varieties, including variegated plants and unusual flower colors, although the exact choice at any one time varies according to seed availability, since clivia seeds can’t be stored for any length of time. However, you can reserve your favorite variety with the company and they will inform you when that seed line becomes available.


The clivia: probably the easiest of all the flowering houseplants … but certainly not a plant for the impatient gardener!

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2 thoughts on “With Clivias, Patience Truly Is a Virtue

  1. Margaret

    In the winter, I keep my Clivia in a south-facing window, with filtered light. When all danger of frost, I take it outside and place it in a very shady spot (otherwise the leaves get burnt). The plant usually blooms very soon after I put it outside. I’ve had this plant for 25 years and this method has given me the best results. I will try to grow it from seed. Thanks for the info. Oh, I live in zone 7B .

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