he English naturalist William J. Burchell is recorded as having been the first person to make a scientific collection of a Clivia (C. nobilis ) in the wild, which he did near the mouth of the Great Fish River in the Eastern Cape in September 1815. During the early 1820s, the intrepid Kew gardener and botanical collector, James Bowie, gathered plants of this species, a pendulous-flowered clivia, in the same area of the Eastern Cape and sent them to England. In October 1828, Kew botanist and horticulturist John Lindley described Clivia nobilis and named it after Lady Charlotte Florentine Clive, Duchess of Northumberland. Lady Clive had been cultivating many of Bowie’s plants in her conservatory at Syon House, just over the Thames from Kew. One of South Africa’s showiest bulbous plants, the trumpet-flowered Clivia miniata, was discovered in KwaZulu-Natal in the early 1850s, and has been in cultivation in England for a century and a half. During the Victorian era it became a very popular indoor plant. In 1856, Major Robert Garden collected a different pendulous-flowered Clivia species in KwaZulu-Natal, which was sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and later described as C. gardenii. The discovery of the first yellow form of Clivia miniata in about 1888 in Zululand, KwaZulu-Natal, provided gardeners and breeders in England with yet another sought-after floral prize from South Africa. The first published report of the yellow clivia was made by Mr W.Watson in volume 25 of The Gardener’s Chronicle in 1899, which he followed with a formal description of C. miniata var. citrina in volume 56 of The Garden, published the same year. C. caulescens, another pendulous-flowered Clivia which develops a curious aerial stem with age, occurs in the eastern parts of Mpumalanga and in the Northern Province. It was described by Dr R.A. Dyer in 1943. In 2002 a fifth species Clivia mirabilis was discovered.

Not surprisingly, Clivia miniata aroused the interest of horticulturists and breeders almost immediately after its discovery, and many fabulous hybrids were subsequently raised in England, Belgium, Germany and other countries. During the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Clivia cultivation for indoor pot plants became the rage in the United Kingdom and Belgium, and although its popularity decreased in both countries in the early 1960s, a thriving Clivia industry still exists in Belgium today, producing many hundreds of thousands of flowering pot plants annually. Probably the most well known Clivia hybrid is Clivia x cyrtanthiflora, raised by Charles Raes in Ghent, Belgium in the late 1850s, and published by Van Houtte in 1869. It is reputed to be a hybrid between C. miniata and C. nobilis.

Early pioneers of Clivia cultivation and breeding in South Africa were undoubtedly the inimitable Gladys Blackboard and the intrepid Gordon McNeil, both of whom belonged to that rare breed of person where individuality of spirit, and obsession with clivias and nature meant everything. Beginning in the late 1920s, Miss Gladys I. Blackbeard reared a fabulous collection of Clivia hybrids over a period of more than thirty years at Scott’s Farm, Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. Over a fifty-year period, Gordon McNeil amassed a vast collection of Clivia species and hybrids, as well as many other bulbous plants, at Cyprus Farm near Ofcolaco in the Northern Province, which he tended right up until his death in 1986. Gordon’s Clivia breeding began in 1962 when he bought Gladys Blackbeard’s collection which, according to Gordon’s sister-in-law, Mrs Adelaide McNeil, ‘required a whole railway truck to transport all the plants to the nearest railway station, and then to Cyprus Farm, where in ideal conditions they continue to thrive’. Gordon conducted countless hybridization experiments with his bulbs, including many intergeneric crosses; he was particularly proud of his putative hybrid between Clivia miniata and an unidentified Hippeastrum species, which he named ‘Green Girl’, of which the author was fortunate enough to receive a plant shortly before Gordon’s passing. Since his death, his clivias continue to be tended by his wife, Marguerite Rose McNeil, at Cyprus Farm.

In more recent times, the focus on Clivia breeding has shifted to the Far East, where a most impressive range of intraspecific hybrids (hybrids between different forms of C. miniata) as well as interspecific hybrids (hybrids between different Clivia species) have been raised. Clivia miniata is a very popular pot plant in China, Korea and Japan, and during a visit to Japan in 1991, the author was astonished to find a 120-page colour booklet in a local Kyushu supermarket covering every imaginable aspect of its cultivation and propagation! Masters of the art of plant selection, and seemingly obsessed with all plants exhibiting variegated foliage, the Japanese have produced a remarkable array of variegated forms of C. miniata and numerous hybrids. Most famous among present-day Clivia breeders in that country is the affable and super-generous Mr Yoshikazu Nakamura, who holds the world’s most diverse collection of Clivia germ plasm at his Clivia Breeding Plantation south of Tokyo. Equally popular, if not more so, is the cultivation and breeding of C. miniata in the People’s Republic of China, where dwarf, orange-flowered cultivars are widely grown as pot subjects. Clivia miniata is so popular in the city of Changchun, in north-eastern China, that its flower has become the city’s emblem. During a recent visit to that country, the author was greatly surprised to see countless pots of flowering Clivia miniata surrounding the embalmed body of Mao Tse Tung inside the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall on Tiananmem Square, Beijing, which greatly relieved the otherwise sombre, austere surroundings. Clivia miniata became a popular container plant inside the palaces of the last imperial Chinese dynasty because of its symbolic longevity, with beautiful leaves further enhanced by flowers in season. In fact, the cultivation of clivias in the Far East is focused primarily on the beauty of the foliage – the dark green shiny leaves and variegated foliage that provide pleasure throughout the year – and not only its flower.

A tremendous international resurgence in the cultivation and breeding of Clivia has taken place over the past ten years. In South Africa this renewed interest resulted in the formation of the Clivia Club in 1992. It includes several regional branches within this country, and enjoys an impressive local and international membership.

Used by permission of National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
Extract from Kirstenbosch Gardening Series, Grow Clivias by Graham D Duncan. Published in 1999 by National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.