Clivias - elegant flowering plants for winter

Clivias aren’t as well known as orchids, but they’re easier to grow.

Photos by NEWSCOM
Blooming Beauty: Until recently, yellow clivias (left) were rare and expensive. Now they’re more common and affordable. Below, Zhang Yaoyu of Shenyang, China, shows off his 14-year-old clivia with 300 flowers.

Victor Murillo of Fallbrook, Calif., was a “clivia prodigy.” Growing up in the nursery industry, he developed an early fascination for the orange-flowered South African plants. By age 13 he had begun breeding them.

As his interest grew, so did his contacts in the clivia world. He traveled, attended symposiums, and corresponded with experts and enthusiasts.

Now in his 30s, Mr. Murillo has bred a host of new varieties, amassed a collection of 10,000 clivias, and established a worldwide reputation among breeders and collectors.

His career has coincided with the growing popularity of the colorful, showy plants.

Clivia has the same tall stalks; long, straplike leaves; and trumpet-shaped flowers as its better known relative, amaryllis. But unlike amaryllis, clivias sport umbels or rounded flowerheads of relatively small, brightly colored trumpets.

Breeders have worked to make those flowerheads as large as possible, and Mr. Murillo says that he aims for “basketball-size umbels.”

Since the first clivia was discovered in the early 19th century, botanists have identified a handful of species, all native to AfricaClivia miniata is by far the most common. In its natural state it grows up to three feet tall with orange or, sometimes, yellow flowers. Anchored by thick, fleshy roots, the plants thrive in light shade.

They aren’t hardy in cold winter climates, but make great container plants and do best when they are pot bound. Northerners can grow them indoors or in greenhouses, setting the plants outside during warm weather.  Clivia usually bloom in late winter or early spring.

An ordinary Clivia miniata is lovely, but hybridizers like Mr. Murillo see it as only the first link in a breeding chain that culminates in a multitude of new colors and forms.

In the last decades of the 20th century, the yellow-flowered hybrid clivia was the Holy Grail for leading breeders. They finally succeeded, but the early yellows were rare and expensive, appearing only in botanical institutions and rare-plant auctions.

Over the past decade, supplies have increased and prices have come down. Now some can be purchased for less than $50.

But yellow was only the beginning in the quest for newer and better plants. Leading breeders around the world continue efforts to expand the clivia color range, adorn the plants with variegated leaves, and produce individual blossoms with more than six petals apiece.

Murillo’s best-known clivia is Victorian Peach, one of many he has created in the peach color range. His special interests include pink-flowered cultivars and those whose blossoms are nearly white.

For genetic reasons, pure white is unattainable – at least right now – but he has created cultivars like Victor’s Green Boy, which is white with a yellow-green throat.

Despite his success, Murillo still works a “day job” in the nursery industry and pursues his clivia career as a home business.  Most of his plants are housed in a greenhouse on his property or in his backyard.

New Murillo hybrids are sold to wealthy collectors from Asia, Africa, and North America as the plants become available.  He also donates clivias to the garden of the Huntington Library garden in San Marino, Calif., and to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa.

Although prices have come down, clivias, which grow slowly, are not inexpensive enough for the cut-flower market. This may change, though, as clivia growers begin to use tissue-culture techniques to produce large numbers of clones.

Murillo already works with one American tissue culture lab, but says that the costs for tissue culture are also high.

So what are the new goals of clivia breeding?

Murillo continues to work on pastels and bicolors, but also wants to create plants that are more compact, with 18- to 24-inch flower stalks that will make them suitable for smaller spaces. While they will be shorter in stature, he hopes that these plants will have the same large flowerheads as their taller cousins and the same relatively wide leaves.  He expects some of those leaves will also be variegated.

So what is it about clivia that fascinates Murillo and others like him? “Beauty,” he says. “I think clivias are 10,000 times more beautiful than roses.”

Clivia care and culture
Outdoors in containers, clivias must be grown in shade. (Their leaves burn in sun.) Indoors, give them bright, indirect light.

Some gardeners grow clivia in orchid potting mixes. Others prefer a medium-coarse commercial potting soil that drains quickly.

In fall and winter, water the plants sparingly to help flower buds form. Fertilize lightly once month in spring and summer.

(NOTE: We invite you to visit the main page of the Monitor’s gardening site , where you can find many articles, essays, and blog posts on various garden topics.)

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