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Classic Clivias


Dramatic clivias, with their big, bright flower clusters, are popular indoor plants in the Mid-Atlantic region. Originally discovered in the warm climate of South Africa, they were brought to England in 1850 by plant explorers. They made quite a splash in the glass houses of the rich, for they resemble amaryllis and are related to them. 

The flowers are named for Charlotte Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland, born a member of the Clive family. She was involved with Kew Gardens, but her other claim to fame was as governess to the future Queen Victoria.

Clivias, about two feet tall and wide, have style and presence. In Great Britain they became one of the most popular indoor or conservatory plants of the Victorian era, rapidly spreading to other countries. Their popularity continues, and so does their development by breeders into stronger, better blooming plants, which are available in a new range of colors.

These round yellow berries are the seedpods of a yellow-flowered clivia.

These round yellow berries are the seedpods of a yellow-flowered clivia.

Clivias are so lush looking and easy to grow indoors that lots of gardeners invest in them, sooner or later. The smooth, evergreen, strap-like leaves look trim and neat, emerging from a thick, bulb-like base. For many weeks of the year there are impressive round clusters of lily-like orange, red, or yellow flowers atop strong stems. The plants live for so many decades that people leave them to others in their wills. A tub of well-grown clivias is a stunning sight. You don’t need a greenhouse, just a room with a lot of indirect light. It helps if it stays cool in winter.

I have Clivia miniata here in my sunroom. I bought some of the plants, and my brother in Southern California gives me red and yellow clivia berries, the seedpods, from his landscape plants. I peel them and separate the shiny bulbils inside them. I plant these individually or in small groups in small flowerpots filled with Pro-Mix and a bit of sand, for new plants. They germinate and start to grow at room temperature under a fluorescent light or in the sunroom. 

It is easy to try this. Plant them near the soil surface with part of the bulbils showing. Cover them with plastic wrap for about a month to prevent their drying out. If they pop out of the planting medium as they sprout, set them back into it.

Once, one of my son’s college friends asked me if I was actually growing radishes indoors. He had seen a big stem bearing a cluster of bright red one-inch berries on one of my clivia plants.

I have a lot of young clivia plants now. It can take five years from bulbil to bloom. Plus, in early June a friend in Michigan sent me dozens of clivia berries from his pots full of special yellow clivias. He said that otherwise the squirrels would eat every berry. He summers his plants outdoors under leafy trees. I want to handle these bulbils well and see what flower colors I get. They could be wonderful. I can always leave the plants to my friends and children. 

But, I am worried. My clivias do not always look their best or bloom every March, though they are tough and do not die. They’ve gotten crowded. I found white scale insects on some of them. So I’ve been reading up on how to give them what they want and am correcting my mistakes.

cliv3For optimal growth and bloom, clivias need attention. Although they like to be somewhat crowded in pots, they need rich soil and large pots, 26 or more inches wide. From spring through summer, give them bright but indirect light, regular watering, and boosts of liquid all-purpose NPK fertilizer according to directions.

If your plants are mature and of blooming size, take steps to stimulate the formation of flowers. Dramatically reduce their watering and light all through October, November, December, and early January. Set them in a darker, cooler place (as low as 40 degrees), but don’t let them freeze. Sometimes a porch or garage is just the place.  

In January, gradually increase the temperature and water to coax them out of dormancy. By February, bring them back out to a warmer, brighter location and resume normal watering and fertilizing. 

Plants that are too small or young to bloom do not need this cooler rest period and grow faster without it.

Stems bearing clusters of flowers emerge between the lush, strap-like leaves.

Stems bearing clusters of flowers emerge between the lush, strap-like leaves.

Insect problems such as scale can be taken care of by nature. Just let your clivias spend summer outdoors in the shade, and the ants will clean them up. But don’t let them stay out too long in fall and get frozen. You can also wipe the leaves with a cloth moistened with water and a bit of alcohol, any time. The pests work their way into crevices between the leaves and are hard to eradicate totally.

If the leaf tips turn brown, your pots may need fresh planting medium to get rid of a buildup of salts. Maybe it is time for a larger pot, too. If the leaves lose their deep green color on one side, they may be getting sunburned.

If you are thinking of acquiring one or more clivia plants, check around and see what the options are. Longwood Gardens is involved in breeding strong yellow ones and features its collection in early March in the conservatory. Breeders in Japan have bred variegated leaved clivias. These look amazing whether in or out of flower, and even the decorative berries that follow the flowers are variegated.

Some of the newest colors in clivia flowers are green, yellow and white, and peachy pink. Check out Clivia miniata ‘Longwood Debutante’ which is creamy pale yellow with white. It is one of many great clivias from their breeding program.

In five years, I hope to see what my Michigan clivias will look like. Wish me luck! 

Visit two clivia societies online at www.northamericancliviasociety.org and cliviasociety.co.za. You’ll find images of the various sorts available, along with the prize winners at competitions. Keep in mind: The best of the new varieties will be rather expensive.