In late summer or early autumn, after fires have swept through some of the swampy areas near the sea in the Hangklip area, you may be lucky enough to see the red paintbrushes of Haemanthus canaliculatus glowing brightly amongst the blackened remains of the vegetation.
The bulbs are made up of a number of thick, fleshy, cream-coloured, overlapping, truncated bulb scales, arranged like a fan, with perennial fleshy roots.
There are usually 2 (sometimes 1, 3 or 4) narrow smooth fleshy leaves up to 600 mm long, curved along their length to form a channel. They are 5–27 mm wide, shiny green with reddish barred markings towards the base, especially on the lower surface.
The smooth, thick, flattened, upright or curved flower stalks can be up to 200 mm long, 4–10 mm wide and are reddishpink to deep red, sometimes with deeper red spots especially near the base; 5–7 pointed, leathery bracts, called spathes, surround the 15–45 flowers clustered at the top of the stalk. The spathes and flowers are usually red but very occasionally may be pink. The flowers are topped with yellow anthers. The reddish berries are round and about 20 mm in diameter.
Under natural conditions the flowering time is from February to March and the leaves usually appear after the flowers from May to December. However, if the natural growing areas are cleared by hand, the leaves and flowers can occur simultaneously, as may also happen in cultivation. It is the only Haemanthus species with fleshy, narrow, channelled leaves with red markings near the base.
These plants are classified as Endangered as their natural habitat is being threatened by urban development, incorrect burning intervals and collecting for horticultural or cut flower purposes.
The channel-leaved haemanthus occurs in a very limited area in swampy depressions on the coastal flats between Betty's Bay and Rooiels in the Hangklip area of the Western Cape at an altitude of about 20–30 m. It grows amongst dense vegetation on peaty soils which are quite wet in winter but remain moist in summer. Temperatures range from 8–28°C in winter to 12–35°C in summer, and rainfall averages from 650–1000 mm, with most of it falling in winter.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The Amaryllis family, Amaryllidaceae, has about 60 genera of which 19 occur in southern Africa, and there are more than 800 species, of which approximately 280 are found in southern Africa. [This classification of Amaryllidaceae is in the sense of Leistner (2000).] In the genus Haemanthus there are 22 species, all of which are endemic to southern Africa and most of which occur in Namaqualand (Northern Cape) and the Western Cape.
The genus name ‘Haemanthus' comes from the Greek ‘haima' = blood and ‘anthos' = flower, as the species first described has red flowerheads. The specific epithet ‘canaliculatus' means having a longitudinal groove or channel, and refers to the narrow leaves which are U-shaped in cross section throughout their length.
Haemanthus canaliculatus was first discovered after a fire in 1943 by Mrs M. Brunt of Betty's Bay. However it was only named much later after another fire in 1960 when sufficient material could be collected to ascertain that it was a new species. It was published for the first time in the Journal of South African Botany in 1966 by Margaret Levyns who described and named it.
It was long thought that these plants needed fire in order to flower, but this is probably only true of plants growing naturally in the wild. As the plants grow in extremely thick wetland vegetation it makes good sense to expend energy on flowering only when this dense plant cover has been burned off and the pollinators can see and approach the flowers. It has been found that clearing the vegetation in the areas in which they grow will also promote flowering. Plants in pots in cultivation have also flowered without the benefit of fire and it is probably the availabilityof sufficient space, air, sun light and warmth that encourages flowering.
Bees have been seen on the flowers and are the probable pollinators. As with other members of the Amaryllis family, seeds are not long-lived and germinate almost immediately. Seed set coincides with the start of the rainy season to provide the best opportunity for the seedlings to grow large enough to survive the dry period when the plants become dormant. As the plants flower and set seed after a fire when the area is not covered by other growth, the seedlings experience optimal growing conditions with little competition from other plants and the availability of nutrients from the ash and plenty of moisture and sunlight needed for growth.
Uses and cultural aspects
There is no record of this species having been used medicinally. However a number of other Haemanthus species, in particular Haemanthus coccineus, have been used to treat various ailments, so it is possible that Haemanthus canaliculatus could be used in similar ways but this is definitely not recommended. It must be noted that the alkaloids contained in many of the species in the Amaryllis family are highly toxic, and without sufficient knowledge of their application, may even prove to be fatal.
Growing Haemanthus canaliculatus
As this is a difficult species to grow, and as it flowers rarely, it is not a good horticultural subject. Staff at the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden have on several occasions grown this species in pots from seed, but have not been very successful in transplanting it to grow outside in the garden, even though some areas in our wetlands would appear to present ideal conditions. Very few of the plants have survived for a year, or two at most, and then disappeared.
Should one want to grow this plant, it is suggested that it be grown in a pot where conditions can be monitored closely. Fresh seeds which are extracted from the fleshy berries must be sown immediately by pressing them into a well-draining seedling mix and barely covered with a light sifting of the mixture. The soil must remain moist at all times even when the seedling leaves show signs of dying down in early summer. Plants should not be disturbed once well established.
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- VAN WYK, B-E., VAN OUDTSHOORN, B., & GERICKE, N. 1997. Medicinal plants of South Africa . Briza Publications, Pretoria.
Harold Porter National Botanical Garden