Clivia, an evergreen favourite

Clivias have made a big comeback in recent years and for good reason. My clivias took the recent drought in their stride and are looking as good as ever. In early spring they really come into their own, filling otherwise dark corners of the garden with vibrant colour. There are many new varieties, with colours ranging from red-orange through to apricot, cream, and even green. Clivias generally flower in late winter and early spring. One of the best places to see mass displays of clivias in the Cape’s Winelands would be Babylonstoren, near Paarl.

Clivias are endemic to southern Africa—in a band from the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu Nata, to Mpumalanga and Swaziland—and grow in well-drained soil in tropical forests along the coast as well as in high-altitude forests. C. mirabilis is the only variety found in the Western Cape and grows in the Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve in the Northern Cape. In South Africa, clivias are also known as boslelies (Afrikaans) and umayime (Zulu).

Clivias have semi-epiphytic roots (orchids are epiphytic) so they are able to grow in very little soil. That is why they are such an effective plant to grow under trees. They will grow in little more than the leaf litter under trees without having to compete with the tree’s roots for water and food. These conditions are amply demonstrated at Babylonstoren where masses of clivias are growing under wild olive trees along the the banks of a stream.

If you want to cultivate your clivias from seed, you need to know that it will be an act of extreme patience. Some clivias like C. nobilis will only flower after 7 or 8 years, C. mirabilis after 6 or 7 years, and the slightly more precocious C. caulescens after 4 or 5 years. If you are on a tighter gardening schedule, ask a friend for a few plants and subdivide clusters when the weather is cooler. Clivias are quite generous that way and will readily give you a couple of plants every year.

Some historical facts

Throughout the 18th and 19th century many plant collectors either travelled to the Cape to collect new plant specimens, or bought specimens from those who trekked throughout southern Africa to collect animal and plant specimens. In 1774, Eduard Regel collected a clivia specimen (probably C. miniata) in the southern Cape, and from there the plant’s offsets were sent to botanical gardens throughout Europe and as far as St Petersburg.

The plant was named after Charlotte Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland (1787-1866). Her father, Robert Clive (1754-1839), a British officer who served in India, was also an avid collector of rare and exotic plants. This honour was bestowed on her by John Lindley, a botanist at the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew. Lindley had been growing plants in her conservatory at Syon House, close to Kew Gardens.

William Burchell (1781-1863) is also linked to the Clivia’s history. Burchell was a very famous collector in his day, and a number of plant and animal species are named after him, including a zebra (Equus quagga burchellii) and a wild pomegranate that is indigenous to the Cape’s floral kingdom (Burchellia babalina). He is said to have collected the first C. nobilis while travelling through the Bathurst district. Burchell spent four years at the Cape, and returned to England in 1815 with a sizeable collection of 63,000 specimens and 500 drawings.

Further reading

The Clivia Society in Johannesburg has a very informative website, amply illustrated with photographs.

Stewart, R.  &  Warner, B.  (2012). William John Burchell: the multi-skilled polymath. South African Journal of Science, 108, 11-12, pp. 52-61. ISSN 1996-7489.

Van Wyk, B., Van Oudtshorn, B. & Gericke, N. (1997). Medicinal Plants of South Africa, Briza Publications, Johannesburg.