One of the surprises of late summer, with flowerheads like bright
shaving brushes popping up from underground bulbs, is Haemanthus
coccineus which has a large number of variations and is one
of 11 species of Haemanthus.
This is a very variable, perennial, geophytic species in which the
laterally compressed bulb may be solitary or clumped.
are generally 2 leaves per bulb, but occasionally 3. The leaves
vary considerably in shape, size, colour and markings. They are
elliptical to broadly or narrowly tongue or strap- shaped (lingulate),
(25-)80-150(-210) mm wide, most often more-or-less barred with red
or dark green on the underside. They
may be prostrate, recurved or stand suberect.
They generally occur after flowering but may rarely occur simultaneously
with the flower. The leaves generally appear from about April to
October, although some may be found as early as February. Leaves
die down from about October and the bulb lies dormant during summer.
flowerheads emerge between February and April, usually before the
leaves appear. The peduncle is occasionally unmarked, but is most
often more-or-less streaked or spotted. The flowerhead comprises
6-9 stiff, red spathe valves surrounding the 25-100 coral to scarlet
flowers. The valves are mostly fleshy and may stand erect or sometimes
be somewhat lax.
flowers are soon followed by translucent, fleshy berries containing
1-3 dark wine-coloured seeds. The berries may be white to pale or
deep pink in colour.
Occurring in widely varying habitats, mainly coastal scrub and rocky
slopes, throughout the winter rainfall region of South Africa, from
southern Namibia southwards to the Cape Peninsula and eastwards
to Grahamstown. Population sizes may vary from a few plants in a
group to dense stands in which there may be hundreds of individuals.
They are found in karooid veld types as well as fynbos and renosterveld
with rainfall ranging between 100-1 100 mm per year and altitudes
from sea level to 1 200 m. They favour fairly protected sites such
as rock crevices and shaded kloofs or the shelter of shrubs and
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The generic name Haemanthus is derived from the Greek word
haima for blood, and anthos for flower, and alludes
to the colour of the perianth in certain species. Coccineus
is the Latin word for red or scarlet.
of the common names such as April Fool or March lily refer to the
flowering time, whereas others such as paintbrush lily and velskoenblaar
refer to the appearance of the inflorescence or the leaves. The
common name bloedblom is said to have been derived because
of the opinion that it stops bleeding.
It was probably the first flower to be collected from Table Mountain
and probably also the first illustration of a SA flower to appear
in a European publication. The illustration was by the Flemish botanist
de L'Obel in 1605.
Like many other amaryllids, Haemanthus coccineus has adapted
to the dry period of the year by resting underground in the form
of a large bulb. (In the western Cape the dry season is summer.)
All above-ground parts dry out during this time to help prevent
moisture loss through transpiration. Just before the rainy season
is due to start, the flowerhead appears. Sunbirds, noctuid moths
and bees are the probable pollinators. Although the berries are
fleshy, they are not eaten by animals. Once the seed has matured,
the flowerhead topples over and the seed germinates immediately.
Seeds have a very short viability period. By flowering and seeding
in autumn, which coincides with the first rains, the seedling has
a full rainy season to develop sufficiently to withstand its first
dry period underground. Leaves usually appear well after the flowers.
Because both the inflorescence and the leaves lose relatively large
amounts of moisture, this adaptation prevents large quantities of
moisture being lost at any one time, reducing stress on the plants.
Fresh leaves were applied as a dressing to septic ulcers and sores
and also to the pustules of anthrax. A diuretic was made from the
sliced bulb boiled in vinegar and mixed with honey. Asthma was also
treated with this mixture. The bulb contains coccinine which is
an alkaloid with a known convulsive action.
Growing Haemanthus coccineus
Haemanthus seeds in deep seed trays as soon as possible after
harvesting in a very well-drained, sandy medium to which some fine
compost is added. Press lightly into the soil, so that the top of
the seed remains visible. Water well once and then again only after
the first leaves appear. After that, water well once every two to
three weeks. When the leaves begin to yellow, withhold watering
altogether. Judicious watering starts again when the leaves reappear
after the dormant period. Leave young plants in seed trays for at
least two years before potting up individually into large, deep
pots about 30cm in diameter. Select pots which will hold the mature
plants, as they don't enjoy being disturbed again.
If planting into open ground, select a really well-drained position
which only receives natural rains and is not influenced by artificial
watering systems. This is truly a water wise plant! Also select
a spot where, although protected, the flowerheads can be appreciated
without being smothered or hidden by other plants.
Away from the winter rainfall region it would be best to treat
this plant as a pot subject, so that watering can be carefully controlled.
Amaryllids can also be grown from offsets or from scales. Two publications
in the Kirstenbosch Gardening Series, Grow bulbs and
Grow nerines, both by Graham Duncan of the National Botanical
Institute, have further valuable propagation information.
Pests and diseases: These plants have a toxic principle which prevents
them from being eaten by moles and molerats. They suffer very few
- COWLING, R. & PIERCE, S. 1999. Namaqualand-a succulent
desert. Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg, Cape Town.
- DUNCAN, G.D. 2000. Grow bulbs. Kirstenbosch Gardening
Series, National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
- DUNCAN, G.D. 2002. Grow nerines. Kirstenbosch Gardening
Series, National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
- MANNING, J., SNIJMAN, D. & GOLDBLATT, P. 2002. The colour
encyclopaedia of Cape bulbs. Timber Press, Portland, Cambridge.
- PAUW, A. & JOHNSON, S. 1999. Table Mountain-a natural
history. Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg, Cape Town.
- SMITH, C.A. 1966. Common names of South African plants. Memoirs
of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 35.
- VAN WYK, B-E. & GERICKE, N. 2000. Peoples plants. A guide
to useful plants of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- VAN WYK, B-E., VAN OUDTSHOORN, B. & GERICKE, N. 1997. Medicinal
plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
Harold Porter National Botanical Garden