Clivias are a very popular container and garden plant in the Algarve, and it is well worth seeking out the many different colours to add interest to your garden or terrace. From the naturally occurring orange or yellow forms, there are now creamy white, green, peach, red and bronze pastel shades available.
Clivias are evergreen perennials with swollen bulb-like bases from South Africa and part of the Amaryllidaceae family. There are at present six described species of Clivia. These are C. nobilis, C. miniata, C. gardenii, C. caulescens and C. mirabilis. Another species, C. robusta, is referred to as the “Swamp clivia” and is found in acidic marshy sites.
The first scientific collection of a clivia was made in 1815 in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa by the intrepid explorer and naturalist William Burchell. Similar plants were collected again in the early 1820s by James Bowie and sent to England, where in 1828 Kew botanist John Lindley described them as Clivia nobilis in honour of the Duchess of Northumberland. Lady Clive (hence Clivia) had been cultivating many of Bowie’s plants in her conservatory at Syon House, just over the Thames from Kew.
One of South Africa’s showiest bulbous plants, the trumpet-flowered Clivia miniata, was discovered in the early 1850s, and has been in cultivation in England ever since. During the Victorian era, it was a very popular indoor or conservatory plant.
In 1856, Major Robert Garden collected a different pendulous-flowered Clivia species, which was sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and later described as C. gardenii. The discovery of the first yellow form of Clivia miniata in about 1888 provided gardeners and breeders in England with another floral prize from South Africa.
The first published report of the yellow clivia was made in 1899, with a formal description of C. miniata var. citrina in the same year.
C. caulescens is another pendulous-flowered Clivia which develops a curious aerial stem with age; this was described by Dr R.A. Dyer in 1943. As recently as 2002, a fifth species, Clivia mirabilis, was discovered.
Not surprisingly, Clivia miniata aroused the interest of horticulturists and breeders almost immediately after its discovery, and many fabulous hybrids were subsequently raised in England, Belgium, Germany and other countries.
During the late 19th and 20th centuries, Clivia cultivation for indoor pot plants became the rage in the United Kingdom and Belgium and, although its popularity decreased, a thriving Clivia industry still exists in Belgium today, producing many hundreds of thousands of flowering pot plants annually.
Probably the most well-known Clivia hybrid is Clivia x cyrtanthiflora, raised by Charles Raes in Ghent, Belgium in the late 1850s, and published by Van Houtte in 1869. It is reputed to be a hybrid between C. miniata and C. nobilis. The idea was quite daring for the times: there was still a strong prejudice against hybridisation. “It was said that by cross-breeding plants, people were flying in the face of providence and that the process was wicked, an impious interference with the laws of nature.”
Early pioneers of Clivia cultivation and breeding in South Africa were undoubtedly the inimitable Gladys Blackboard and the intrepid Gordon McNeil, for both of whom clivias and nature meant everything.
Beginning in the late 1920s, Miss Gladys reared a fabulous collection of Clivia hybrids over a period of more than 30 years.
Over a 50-year period, Gordon McNeil amassed a vast collection of Clivia species and hybrids, as well as many other bulbous plants which he tended until his death in 1986.
Gordon’s Clivia breeding began in 1962 when he bought Gladys Blackboard’s collection, which “required a whole railway truck to transport all the plants”. Gordon conducted countless hybridisation experiments with his bulbs, including many intergeneric crosses; he was particularly proud of his putative hybrid between Clivia miniata and an unidentified Hippeastrum species, which he named ‘Green Girl’.
In more recent times, the focus on Clivia breeding has shifted to the Far East, where an impressive range of intraspecific hybrids (hybrids between different forms of C. miniata) as well as interspecific hybrids (hybrids between different Clivia species) have been raised.
Clivia miniata is a very popular pot plant in China, Korea and Japan. Masters of the art of plant selection, and seemingly obsessed with all plants exhibiting variegated foliage, the Japanese have produced a remarkable array of variegated forms of C. miniata and numerous hybrids.
Most famous among present-day Clivia breeders in that country is Mr Yoshikazu Nakamura, who holds the world’s most diverse collection of Clivia germ plasm at his Clivia Breeding Plantation south of Tokyo.
Equally popular, if not more so, is the cultivation and breeding of C. miniata in the People’s Republic of China, where dwarf, orange-flowered cultivars are widely grown. Clivia miniata is so popular in the city of Changchun, in north-eastern China, that its flower has become the city’s emblem.
Clivia miniata became a popular container plant inside the palaces of the last imperial Chinese dynasty because of its symbolic longevity, with beautiful leaves further enhanced by flowers in season. In fact, the cultivation of clivias in the Far East is focused primarily on the beauty of the foliage – the dark green shiny leaves and variegated foliage that provide pleasure throughout the year – and not only for its flower.
A tremendous international resurgence in the cultivation and breeding of clivia has taken place over the past 10 years, many international clubs and groups exist and there is further info on the Clivia Society web pages. So, enjoy your clivia in flower, and remember that it has a fascinating story to tell about interfering with the laws of nature!
The Clivia Society – https://cliviasociety.com/ (for growing and propagating clivias)
For general cultivation – www.rhs.org.uk
With grateful thanks to Burford Hurry and to William Raats for photos from the 2015 International Clivia Show in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
By Rosie Peddle