Twisted flowers of flame lily
Published on: Sunday, March 28, 2021
By: Eskay Ong
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WHAT is a Flame Lily?  And why must its flowers be twisted?  Very simple.  The flower petals are always naturally twisted even during its earliest stage of opening, with the colour of mature old flowers being of a striking flame-red.  In fact, the physical characteristics of its flowers is quite different from most other flowers.  

This is easily seen in the nodding flowers where the petals arch upwards and backwards to leave the stamens and ovary hanging at the bottom.

The Flame Lily, or Gloriosa superba, belongs to the family Colchicaceae which is well distributed all over the world.  Originating in the jungles of tropical Africa and Asia, it has now become a popular ornamental plant in many homes and gardens. It carries various common names such as Gloriosa Lily, Climbing Lily, Tiger Claw, Creeping Lily, etc.  

There are some countries that categorise it as an invasive species due to its ability to spread and sustain itself even on very marginal soils.  Its durability is due in part to its minimal uptake of water as well as its two-pronged system of multiplication which is either from above or below. 

From the top, it is about sexual propagation where pollination is carried out by large insects such as butterflies and moths which result in the production of seeds which are easily dispersed due to its attractive red colour. From the bottom, it is through asexual propagative methods where new plants are generated from such structures as tubers or rhizomes.  

These underground structures can achieve a fairly good spread especially in the more mature plants.

Nowadays, the fastest and most effective way to disperse the variety is through human hands.  Some use the power of their pockets to acquire what is desired, while others may literally have to use their fingers to claw their way through the soil surface to reach the rhizomes in the open belukar.  With the payback time in sight, it is surely a rewarding experience sweating and slogging it out to lug home the gorgeous ornamental.

What is so gorgeous about flame lilies?

Basically, the Flame Lily is a flower of contradiction.  In the first place, it is neither a flame nor is it a true lily.  The flower may appear to be erect and standing which render it a beautiful image, but in fact, it is just a show of its proud, backward arching petals when the rest of the flower structure is actually in a pendulous state.  

What’s more, with its bright red and yellow sections on the petals against a background of green foliage, the judgement on the ornamental is therefore gorgeous and outstanding.

On the same note, plants such as Hibiscus schizopetalus and Wrightia religiosa also have pendulous flowers.  These have their special pull when they release great numbers of attractive and fragrant flowers especially when they are well-trimmed at particular sections and fertilised with the right kind of fertilisers.  

The right skill which is applied at the right time on selected ornamentals is able to convert a dim and dull plant into a whopper of a bloomer.  Such skills add value not only to the plants concerned but also to the property on which they are grown.

This means that the use of Flame Lilies should be able to positively impact on the value of a property if they are mollycoddled with correct knowledge and soothing tender expert fingers.  Of course this is true as no expert worth his iota of salt would contest the fact that the existence of beautiful well-maintained ornamentals would add significantly to the value of any property regardless of whether they are for sale or otherwise.

Flame lilies for ornamental purposes

Flame Lilies produce strikingly showy flowers which stand out starkly sharply against a backdrop of green.  Flowers appear to be in a nodding position with each carrying 6 petals measuring 5-8cm long. The petals have crinkled and wavy margins on both sides, and usually the lower half to a third are coloured yellow with the rest a bright red.  

Old flowers usually morph into a very much denser red which cover the entire flower. As they age and shrivel, the fruit capsule enlarges and lengthens to show the leathery bulge.   This visual punch indeed arises through the power of the old, which means to say that old stuffs including old heads should never be written off as they may be worth a lot more as they age. As a digression, just look at the olds in cars, motorbikes, paintings, books, manuscripts, furniture, gadgets, coins etc. Once monetised, they are worth a huge pile of cash.

Individual flowers also carry six stamens spread out hexagonally which resemble the lower limbs of a drone approaching in attack or photo-shooting mode.  Stamens are about 3-4cm in length and are easily seen at the base of the petals. At the distal tips of the stamens are the individual anthers which mature to unload and disperse a heavy load of yellow pollen.

After successful pollination, a large fleshy capsule is formed which hangs at the bottom in the middle spot surrounded by the limbs of stamens. Upon full ripening, it may burst open to release up to 20 rounded red seeds.

There are various cultivars of Flame Lily including the all-yellow or all-white varieties. These too have narrow curly, wrinkled or wavy flower petals that are naturally reflexed in shape.  

Nevertheless, the one most commonly seen within the local scenario is still the red-yellow combination which can be found in many locations both within and outside the city proper. Looking around places such as belukar, jungle fringes, untended lands, or sometimes, even in neglected plots with marginal soils within the city should be able to yield surprisingly rich pickings.

When a finding has been located, do not be too quick to whoop with joy and ecstasy as removing them may be a truly delicate task.  Any roughshod work done in haste and ignorance may result in the plant being unable to survive for long when taken home.

Firstly, to lift up the plant, do not try to pull it out quickly using just plain raw brawn. Add in a little bit of brain and the plant should soon slide out and into your embrace without shattering the root ball.  

As mentioned in previous articles, it is advisable to make a neat cut on four sides, or at least in a triangular pattern, in order to lift up the root ball intact in a single piece. This should be quickly wrapped up to prevent severe desiccation and this should ensure a nearly 100pc success rate of transplanting.

Next, care has to be taken to prevent serious damage to the leaf tips which are all endowed with a curvy tendril.  Nature has given such a brainy structure to help the Flame Lily grip on to something for support while climbing up or around to seek the best inputs for its survival.  

Sometimes, the grip may be so tight that when the plant is forcefully torn off from its home, parts of the leaves may be affected, and even the stems may be badly twisted.  These are setbacks that can be easily avoided by being a bit more careful which does not cost half a dime.

And then there is a need to protect the delicate stems from being broken or damaged when the plant is removed. As the stems are usually about two to three metres long, and coupled with its slim, thin and wobbly nature, it is therefore easy to damage them when they are handled in an uncouth or careless manner.

With all these precautions in place, it is therefore possible for the trophy to be successfully lifted and lugged home.  From then onwards, it is just a matter of the usual handling and planting to ensure that colourful flowers may continue to come on stream. The usual method of planting the Flame Lily is either on the ground or in suitable containers.  Either way, they need some form of support such as a trellis system or bamboo stakes set in a triangle.  Alternatively, free-growing plants are allowed to creep or scramble around freely, and putting their leaf-tip tendrils to maximum use.

Flame lilies for other purposes

The Flame Lily is simply a slim, willowy climber or creeper, which regularly yields lots of colourful flowers, long lance-shaped leaves with their characteristic tip tendril, and plenty of rhizomatous tubers that can be readily used to start new plants.  Come fruiting time, there will be plenty plump, elongated fruits that can deliver around 20 red seeds per capsule, and these can be used to start even more plants.  

While seeds may look very neat and less messy to grow new plants, this is not recommended as it may take a couple of years for the plant to show its flowers, by which time, some plant enthusiasts could have forgotten what they actually did and what their aim was in the first place.

Apart from lifting whole plants from its habitat, the next best route to more new plants is through the cultivation of its tubers.  These appear to be quite like mini tapioca or sweet potato and their numbers are quite plentiful.  They are strictly not recommended as a food item except for use in traditional medicines, and even that requires the expertise of trained and experienced herbalists or sing sangs to dispense or recommend its usage.

- The writer may be reached at [email protected]


An old flower that appears to be in tatters, is almost completely red. As it shrivels, the fruit capsule continues to enlarge until it is prominently visible.


A beautiful Flame Lily flower. Note the six arms of the stamen and fruit capsule hanging at the bottom. 

A flower bud just about to open.

A cluster of young flower buds.

Each leaf carries a tendril at the tip to help it grab on to anything for support.

A Flame lily vine creeping its way up some other vegetation.

A semi-opened flower where the petals are in the process of stretching out.

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December 20, 2014