Kniphofia ensifolia


Common names:
torch lily (Eng.); vuurpyl (Afr.)

This torch lily is an attractive plant with erect, grey-green, deeply keeled leaves, forming large clumps with attractive white to greenish white or greenish yellow flowers borne on tall stalks in spring.

This is a robust plant with 8-12 strap-shaped leaves, 500-1 200 x 15-35 mm. The flower stalk (peduncle) can grow up to 1.8 m tall and is topped by a very dense, cylindrical inflorescence which tapers towards the tip. It comprises many tubular, greenish white to cream-coloured flowers which open from slightly red-tinged buds in spring (October). In the subspecies autumnalis the flowers are yellower and brighter and occur in autumn..

The torch lily occurs mainly in grassland along streams. It prefers heavy clay soils that are inundated with water during the warm summer months. It occurs naturally in the interior of South Africa, west of the Drakensberg escarpment in the far eastern parts of the Northern Cape, Free State, northern Eastern Cape and is widespread in the high-lying parts of the northern provinces of Gauteng, North-West, Limpopo and Mpumalanga.

Kniphofia is named in honour of J.H. Kniphof (1704-1763) who was a professor of medicine at Erfurt University in Germany.

The name ensifolia is derived from Latin, meaning sword-shaped, in reference to the shape of the leaves.
There are two subspecies: subsp. ensifolia which is widespread and is described above, and subsp. autumnalis which occurs in the Harrismith District of Free State and bears flowers with a yellowish tinge in autumn (February-March).

Kniphofia ensifolia belongs to a large genus of some 70 species, many of which are attractive garden subjects. The flowers vary from white through yellow to deep orange and even almost black in the case of K. typhoides.

The range of size and leaf character is remarkable, from tiny plants of not much more than 300 mm to giant species like K. multiflora, which can produce flower spikes of over three metres in height and recurving leaves of the same length.

Kniphofia ensifolia is found growing naturally along watercourses usually in marshy soil where water is abundant, it enjoys wet feet, although in cultivation it can be grown in normal garden soil if enough water is provided. It is also adapted to being burnt in veld fires in its natural habitat. It survives by storing water in its thick roots and retaining the following season's buds below ground where they are not damaged.

The flowers are rich in sweet nectar which is relished by nectiferous birds especially sunbirds. Insects are also attracted by the nectar and they in turn attract insectivorous birds to the garden.

Although there seems to be no direct reference to the use of this species in traditional medicine or folklore, there are a few other members of the group, which are indeed listed as being used as snake deterrents as well as use of the roots for relieving chest complaints. Other species are also listed as being used by the Xhosa women for bringing good luck to their children.

Growing Kniphofia ensifolia

This is a an old garden plant. Taylor (1985) writes that Francis Masson introduced it to gardens before 1786.

The torch lily is a useful garden and landscape plant for many applications as it is deciduous, becoming totally leafless during the dry winter months, providing an opportunity to plant winter-flowering annuals in the same area. It has attractively architectural foliage which provides a backdrop for softer-textured perennial planting in the foreground. The attractive, nectar-rich, spring flowers also draw birds to the garden. Coming from high altitudes and being dormant in winter makes it suitable for colder gardens.

Kniphofia ensifolia is easily propagated from fresh seed sown in spring in seed trays or frames. The seed should be lightly covered and kept moist. The seed usually germinates within 3-6 weeks and should be left until they are approximately 50 mm high before pricking them out into deeper trays or cold frames where they can be grown until they are large enough to be planted into individual containers and ultimately into the garden.

Mature plants may also be divided into several smaller clumps, this is best done at the end of winter before the onset of the growing season.


  • Arnold, T.H. & De Wet, B.C. (eds). 1993. Plants of southern Africa: names and distribution. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 62. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
  • Codd, L.E. 1968. The South African species of Kniphofia. Bothalia 9: 363-513.
  • Fabian, A. & Germishuizen, G. 1982. Transvaal wild flowers. Macmillan, Johannesburg.
  • Fabian, A. & Germishuizen, G. 1997. Wildflowers of northern South Africa. Fernwood Press, Cape Town.
  • Hutchings, A. et al. 1996. Zulu medicinal plants. An inventory. University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg.
  • Pooley, E. 1998. A field guide to wild flowers of KwaZulu-Natal and the eastern region. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
  • Taylor, J. 1985. Kniphofia - survey. The Plantsman 7:128-160

Andrew Hankey,
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden.
December 2003
With additions by Yvonne Reynolds

To find out if SANBI has seed of this or other SA species, please email our seedroom.
This page forms part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute's plant information website