(Kaffir Lilies)


Paula Szilard

Named after Lady Charlotte Clive, Duchess of Northumberland, who first cultivated and flowered  them in Great Britain, clivias were first discovered in 1815 by the naturalist and explorer William Burchell in the forests of Eastern Cape Province of South Africa.  Additional plants were collected in the same area in the early 1820’s by plant collector and Kew gardener James Bowie, under the direction of Kew botanist James Lindley. 

In 1828, Through some quirk of circumstance, this plant was simultaneously named by two leading British botanists in separately published articles, James Lindley, the recipient of Bowie’s collected specimens and William Jackson Hooker.  Hooker’s name didn’t stick, but Lindley’s   ‘Clivia nobilis,’ did.  At the time Hooker was suspected of having the plant surreptitiously removed from Kew so he could describe it.

For this occasion Lindley wrote, “We have named this genus in compliment to her grace, the Duchess of Northumberland, to whom we are greatly indebted for an opportunity of publishing it.  Such a compliment has long been due to the noble family of Clive, and we are proud in having the honour of being the first to pay it.”  That is why, the name is most commonly pronounced as “clyvia.” The first “i” is pronounced like the first “i” in ivy rather than

the first “I” in  trivia.  Clivias are often thought of as Victorian, however they were not widely grown as houseplants during that time because of their high cost.   (They’re still expensive today.  A large specimen will cost anywhere between $40-50 or more, possibly because the plants are slow growers, especially if started from seed).  As late as 1890, the plant was still not found in a standard plant reference book of the period.

Clivias do make wonderful houseplants because they are fairly tolerant of shade.  They have lovely dark green strap shaped leaves that are almost bilaterally symmetrical.  The genus Clivia consists of five species in the Amaryllidaceae family.  Clivia miniata, the species most commonly grown in the home, blooms in the winter, most often in December or January.  C. miniata has several different cultivars.  The species has open tubular orange flowers with  yellow centers borne on an umbel. ‘Fire Lily’ is an attractive orange cultivar with a more pronounced yellow center.   C. miniata ‘Striata’ has  orange flowers and striped white and green leaves.

There are a number of yellow cultivars: Clivia miniata ‘Aurea,’ and Clivia miniata ‘Golden Dragon,’ as well as a peachy yellow called ‘Victorian Peach.’  All are available from Logee’s.   Reference books list other yellows:    C.miniata var. citrina,  and its variant, ‘Kirstenbosch Yellow,’ C. Miniata ‘Megen.’and C. miniata ‘Vico Yellow,’

The four less commonly cultivated species are:  C. caulescens with narrow pendant, almost  tube shaped orange flowers;  Clivia nobilis, the actual species named after Lady Clive, which also has pendant, narrow orange flowers, but tipped in green; Clivia mirabilis with drooping, narrow red/orange or yellow and green flowers from Northern Cape Province in South Africa; and Clivia gardenii from the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands, with pendant flowers in peachy yellow edged with green, peachy coral on top and bright green on the bottom or peachy coral with a yellow stripe edged with green.  To the unpracticed eye, there is not a whole lot of difference among them. 

This was my first excursion into the world of clivias.  I had never grown one before late last fall.  For a long time I had coveted the orange ones at O’Toole’s Garden Center, particularly when they were flowering.  Then a friend gave me one and shortly thereafter I found another beautiful, large specimen at an estate sale for $4.00. This was definitely my estate sale bargain of he year.  Both were quite root bound and were recently transplanted, but both are nonetheless blooming now.

Clivias are not particularly demanding in their care.  During spring and summer, water generously and fertilize your clivias once a month, but do let the surface dry out between waterings.  Use a slow release or an all purpose fertilizer with an NPK ratio of roughly 20-20-20, but make sure it has all the micronutrients as well.  During spring and summer the plants also like warm temperatures.   Although books advise you never to let clivias dry out completely, you do need to reduce watering considerably and expose the plant to lower temperatures in the late fall and early winter to bring it into bloom.  This is sometimes referred to as a short early winter rest period and should last for 6-8 weeks.  Just give it enough water to keep the leaves from shriveling.  During this time, give it temperatures slightly below 50 F, but definitely far above freezing.   Then do not put it into a warm place and start regular watering until the flower stalk is the right height.  The books say that when the plant is not chilled, the flower stalks remain short and stay “compressed” between the leaves.  The Clivia Society website, on the other hand, attributes this failing to a potassium deficiency.  When I got my plants, I was unaware of the chilling requirement and in the case of my larger plant it should already have been chilled before I got it.  It was located in a warm room when I bought it. My flowers, though still beautiful, are “scrunched up” between the leaves.  Immature plants not yet in the blooming stage do not need this rest and chilling period.

The books recommend a window that gets bright light with early morning or late afternoon sun.  If you locate it facing west, you may need to move it back from the window a little. Several sources recommended using a soil based planting medium, however, the Clivia Society does not recommend this practice because it may not provide sufficient drainage or allow enough oxygen to get to the roots.   It recommends a mixure of 2/3 PromixT or other potting mix consisting of peat, perlite and vermiculte with 1/3 sand added.   I used Fafard #2, a porous all purpose potting mix, before I knew about the sand.

Repot plants only every three to four years.  Clivias have thick, fleshy roots, somewhat like daylilies.  They tend to flower better when they are pot bound.  Topdressing in years when they are not being transplanted may help.  Scrape away about 2 inches of the mix, being careful not to damage the root system and replace it with fresh mix to which you have added a little bonemeal and some slow-release fertilizer.  Repotting and top dressing are best done in the late winter.

After clivias bloom, remove the seed heads (fruits) because they will consume too much of the plant’s energy and it may not flower in the next bloom cycle.  When the flower stalk begins to die off, pull it out.

Growers in cold climates like ours sometimes put their clivias outside for the summer in a location that has medium to heavy dappled shade and bring them in well before the first frost, thus exposing them to a cool fall rest period. In the winter they can stay in the house, sunroom or in a greenhouse.

Propagate the plant by removing the offsets.  This is far easier said than done.  Offsets should have at least three leaves before they are removed from the mother plant.  You must first find where the offset is attached to the parent and cut it with a sharp knife.  Then comes the hard part—untangling the roots and freeing the offset.  The best time to do this is when the plant has finished blooming.  Plant the offsets in a 5” clay pots, using a mixture of one half peat and one half coarse sand.  Don’t try propagating it from seed unless you are both young enough and very patient.  Although James Shield, an Indiana grower has grown plants from seed to flowering in 30-36 months, it could take the rest of us 7 or 8 years to get from seed to flowering.

So far I have not had any pests or disease problems, but the Clivia Society website lists mealybugs, aphids, red spider mites, thrips and whiteflies as potential insect pests.  If you do have any such infestations, you may not want expose yourself to a vast arsenal of agricultural chemicals.  You might want to consider strong jets of water or soap sprays for aphids and mealy bugs and sprays of ultrafine horticultural oil mixed with water for spider mites, thrips and whiteflies. Keep in mind that all these pests are difficult to eradicate and plants will require multiple treatments.  Also, many plants are sensitive to oil sprays, so testing on an inconspicuous part of the spray is always a good idea.

Clivias are extremely rewarding plants and bloom fairly reliably in the home.  They have lovely, arching symmetrical leaves and are attractive even when they are not blooming.  They are relatively easy to care for.  They just need a little special attention at certain times of the year and are certainly worth the effort because they bring a cheery brightness to your indoor environment when you most need it, in the short, drab days of winter. 

Authors note:  I would like to thank Gabriella Bertelmann for looking over the draft and making suggestions on ways to improve it.

Sources consulted:

Beckett, Kenneth A.  The RHS Encyclopedia of Houseplants, including Greenhouse Plants.  Topsfield, MA:  Salem House Publishers, 1987.

Clivia Society website:

Flora:  the Gardener’s Bible.  Willoughby, NSW:  Global Book Publishing, 2003.

Herwig, Rob.  Growing Beautiful Houseplants: an Illustrated Guide to the Selection and Care of more than 1,000 Varieties.  New York: Facts on File, 1987.

McDonald, Elvin.  The New Houseplant:  Bringing the Garden Indoors.  New York: Macmillan, 1993.

Reader’s Digest.  Success with Houseplants.  Reader’s Digest, 1979.

Zachos, Ellen.  Tempting Tropicals.  175 Irresistable Indoor Plants.  Portland, OR:  Timber Press, 2005.