Haemanthus albiflos is the best known of the three evergreen
species of Haemanthus and with its handsome leaves, long
flowering season and red berries is an excellent choice for shady
spots in the garden.
Haemanthus is a most interesting, endemic southern Africa
genus comprising approximately twenty-two species, the vast majority
of which occur in South Africa, in particular the arid region of
central and western Namaqualand. The genus is also represented in
central and south-western Namibia and in southern Mozambique, and
also occurs in Lesotho and Swaziland. All the species are bulbous
geophytes with perennial fleshy roots and produce a dense cluster
of red, pink or white flowers. The species from the western parts
of southern Africa are all winter-growing with a distinct summer
dormant period. Those from the summer rainfall parts are mostly
summer-growing and dormant in winter, but there are also three evergreen
species in this region, namely H. albiflos, H. deformis and
H. pauculifolius. In addition to their eye-catching flower
heads, the leaves of the various species are particularly attractive
and interesting, for example the well known H. sanguineus
produces two very broad leathery leaves which lie flat on the ground,
H. crispus produces two erect narrow leaves with wavy margins
and attractive spots or blotches in the lower parts, and H. pubescens
produces two lance-shaped, recurved leaves, densely covered with
soft hairs on the upper surface. The most astonishing leaf of all
belongs to H. nortieri, which produces a single erect, spoon-shaped
leaf with a slightly sticky surface, to which tiny sand granules
The name Haemanthus is derived from the Greek "haima"
meaning blood and "anthos" meaning flower - a reference
to the red flowers of most species. Albiflos refers to the
white flowers of this particular species.
Haemanthus albiflos grows up to about 250 mm high when
in flower, and it has a wide, mainly coastal distribution stretching
from the southern Cape through many parts of the Eastern Cape, right
up to the northern parts of KwaZulu-Natal.
It is a very variable plant. The oblong leaves vary in colour
from pale to dark green or greyish-green and are usually smooth
and sometimes shiny. They may occasionally be covered with short,
soft hairs, or have yellowish spots on the upper surface. Unlike
most other Haemanthus species, which prefer full sun, H.
albiflos almost always occurs in shady habitat in forest and
bushveld vegetation. The upper half of the bulb is usually exposed
above ground and is bright green.
albiflos has a long flowering period extending from early April
to as late as July (autumn and winter) in the wild, but sporadic
blooms may also appear at any time of the year under cultivation.
The flower head (known as an umbel in botanical terms) is compact,
usually about 30-50 mm wide, and consists of numerous erect, narrow
white flowers, enclosed by several broad, greenish-white bracts.
The erect stamens protrude conspicuously beyond the tips of the
flowers and their anthers turn bright yellow or orange when ripe.
Bees and butterflies visit the flowers and are probably the pollinators,
but this has not been confirmed. The ripe fruit is a most attractive
bright orange or red fleshy berry producing a distinctive musty
This plant is reported (Pooley 1998) to be used in traditional
medicine to treat chronic coughs and as a charm to ward off lightning.
Growing Haemanthus albiflos
H. albiflos is one of the easiest of all the Haemanthus
species to grow. It requires a dappled shade position similar to
that preferred by clivias, and likes to remain undisturbed for many
years once established. The soil medium must be well aerated and
a suggested medium is equal parts of well rotted compost, coarse
river sand and loam. Plant the greenish bulbs with the upper half
exposed and the thick fleshy roots spread out horizontally over
the medium. It is an ideal plant for a shady rock garden or for
difficult parts of the garden receiving poor light, where they can
be left to multiply for many years.
It also makes an excellent subject for plastic or terracotta containers
and these need not be deep as the roots naturally spread out horizontally.
Pots of H. albiflos can be grown very successfully on a shady
verandah and it is also suitable as an indoor plant where it should
be placed in a positions receiving dappled light but not direct
sunlight. Plants like to become pot bound and mature bulbs flower
reliably every year, and only need to be divided every seven or
eight years when flowering performance starts to diminish. H.
albiflos is not hardy and has to be grown under the protection
of the cool greenhouse in countries with very cold winter conditions.
Propagation of H. albiflos is by seed and by separation
of offsets from thick clumps. Seeds are sown once the ripe berries
have become soft and turned a bright orange or red colour from the
end of winter to early summer, depending on the particular form
being cultivated. Remove the hard oval-shaped seeds from the berries,
wash them in water to remove the sticky pulpy layer surrounding
them, and allow to dry for a day or two. Sow the seeds evenly in
deep seed trays in a medium of equal parts of finely milled bark
or finely sifted compost, as well as coarse river sand and loam,
ensuring that they are covered with a very thin layer of about 3-4
mm of sowing medium. Water well with a fine rose and place the trays
in a shaded position protected from heavy rain, and keep moist by
watering well once every two weeks. Germination can take several
months, so be patient.
Seedlings should be allowed to remain in the trays for two years,
and can be planted out into the garden or into permanent pots in
spring at the beginning of their third season, during which time
the first flowers can be expected, under ideal conditions.
Offset bulbs are best separated from thick clumps in early spring,
as temperatures begin to rise, ensuring that each offset has a good
supply of roots. They should not be forcibly broken away from the
mother bulbs but should be tugged away gently. They should be replanted
as soon as possible and kept well shaded until the bulbs have established
themselves and formed additional roots.
Haemanthus albiflos is not often subject to attack by pests
or diseases but the leaves are sometimes invaded by the dreaded
lily borer, also known as amaryllis caterpillar. The night-flying
adult moth lays its eggs on the undersides of the leaves and the
caterpillars rapidly bore into the leaf tissue and eventually into
the bulb, which can be completely hollowed out in severe infestations.
This pest, which is most prevalent during the hot summer months,
can be controlled by cutting away and disposing of affected leaves,
or by spraying with a carbaryl-based insecticide in severe infestations.
- Duncan, G.D. 1989. Haemanthus. In: Du Plessis, N.M. and G.D.
Duncan, Bulbous Plants of Southern Africa. Tafelberg, Cape Town.
- Duncan, G.D. 2000. Grow Bulbs. Kirstenbosch Gardening Series.
National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
- Jackson, W.P.U. 1987. Origins and meanings of names of South
African Plant Genera. Part 1. Rondebosch: UCT.
- Pooley, E 1998.A Field Guide to Wildflowers : Kwazulu-Natal
and the Eastern Region. Durban: Natal Flora Publications Trust.
- Snijman, D. 1984. A revision of the genus Haemanthus L. Journal
of South African Botany Suppl. vol. 12. National Botanical Institute,
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
with additions by Yvonne Reynolds