Oh. Clivias.

In other parts of the world, Clivia miniata is a tough house plant. I read a story somewhere about a horticulture professor who took a healthy potted Clivia to the first day of a class and without a word, put it in a lightless lecture room closet and locked it up. Then at the end of the semester, at the end of the last class, he unlocked the closet, and pulled it out, still healthy, but now in bloom.

I don't know if that story is true, but as long as it stays above the high 20's F, this plant is nearly indestructible. The genus was named for Lady Charlotte Clive, Duchess of Northumberland, when the first plants were brought to England from South Africa in the early 19th Century. A general rule of botanical nomenclature is to pronounce plant names which are named for people in the same way the person's name is pronounced. So, pronounce "Clivia" with a long first "i", as in "dive".

The Clivia are late, blooming only now. In past years they've bloomed in December, but not this year. The timing is right for this clump paired with Azalea 'Alaska'--they're blooming together:

It its native South Africa, Clivia miniata is found growing in the shade of trees. In East Asia and Europe, this is a houseplant enjoyed for the beauty of its foliage. Shorter, wider foliage is preferred because it enhances the shape and neatness of the plant, so enthusiasts there have selectively bred for those characteristics. Clivia breeding is best started in childhood. It takes roughly ten years to go from seed to plant to seeds of that plant, so a human life spans only a few generation of Clivia.

In California, this is the go-to plant for the north side of the house, for dry gloomy areas under that Magnolia tree that desperately needs pruning, for anywhere nothing else will grow because it's too shady. You could put Aspidistras there, but Clivia are even easier. Since they form enthusiastic clumps given minimal care, it's a plant you never buy--you get it from your neighbors who have too many.

Look to the neighbor whose Clivias have the shortest, widest leaves, because they form the neatest, most attractive plants. Watch for snails, white fly, and mealy bugs, but they won't be able to kill the Clivias, only make them less beautiful. Water them if you remember. They don't care if you forget.

I got accustomed to ignoring Clivias because they are so common here. It's like looking at blue sky--how different is it from day to day? My reaction was: Oh. Clivias.

But I've learned they're a good indicator of how much organic material is in their soil. Now in any garden I visit I take a look at the Clivias, and thereby determine the compost-distributing skills of the gardener. It's what makes the difference between a fat glossy Clivia that's formed a fat glossy clump, and a weary, droopy, tired, solitary Clivia that looks utterly unloved. This plant journeyed all the way here from the shade of a South African tree, via England, with stops in Europe and East Asia to get its foliage widened and shortened. Doesn't it deserve some love, some wonder, and most of all, some compost?


  1. It also does well in completely rootbound areas. Okay, so it looks unloved, but hey, it blooms.


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