A dense cluster of white flowers borne atop a short hairy stem and large, fleshy grey leaves make Haemanthus deformis one of South Africa 's most extraordinary bulbous plants. Although poorly known in cultivation, its preference for shade and ease of culture make it an invaluable subject for the gardener and specialist bulb-grower alike.
Haemanthus deformis is an evergreen bulbous plant with thick fleshy roots and two or four broad, grey or greenish grey leaves that are spreading or lie flat on the ground. The leaves are fleshy and have hairy margins. The mature plant reaches up to 120 mm high in flower and produces a single thick, bent, short, hairy flower stem in the centre, between the leaf bases.
The flower head consists of a dense cluster of erect, white individual flowers with white filaments and bright yellow anthers, and prominent long, white, protruding styles. The flowers are enclosed by broad, strong white bracts that are distinctly recurved in the upper part. The fruit is a fleshy, dark orange berry containing a few hard, oblong seeds.
Haemanthus deformis is a protected plant and is not currently known to be threatened in any way.
Distribution and habitat
Haemanthus deformis has a limited distribution in the northeastern parts of the Eastern Cape (in the former Transkei ) and in the coastal and Midland areas of KwaZulu-Natal. It grows in moist, shaded conditions amongst bushy undergrowth or between rocks on shady slopes. As it is an evergreen plant, it likes moisture throughout the year, especially in summer, but less during the winter months. It is sensitive to frost.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus Haemanthus takes its name from the Greek haima meaning blood, and anthos meaning flower. This refers to the reddish flowers of many Haemanthus species, such as the well known H. coccineus and H. sanguineus, two of the first-described members of this genus. H. deformis was named in 1871 by Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, the famous nineteenth century English botanist, explorer and plant collector, and friend of Charles Darwin. The specific name deformis he chose probably refers to the very short, bent flower stem, and the extraordinary manner in which the flower head appears in the centre at the base of the two evergreen leaves, not from a lateral point as in the other evergreen Haemanthus species, H. albiflos and H. pauculifolius. Haemanthus is an entirely southern African genus of some 22 species. It has a true bulb as its storage organ and is endemic to South Africa, the southern and southwestern parts of Namibia, and the mountain kingdoms of Lesotho and Swaziland. All its members are deciduous with the exception of three evergreen species, H. albiflos from the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, H. deformis, and H. pauculifolius from the Mpumalanga Escarpment. H. coccineus is without doubt the most recognizable member of the genus to residents of the Western Cape, with H. sanguineus a close second; both are widely known as April fool lilies here, for their tendency to bloom around 1 April following early autumn rains.
The plants are evergreen, producing a set of two new leaves straight after the flower head appears. The old set of leaves then withers and dies over a period of several months. The flowers of Haemanthus deformis are probably pollinated by honey bees. The flowers bloom mainly in late autumn but may appear at any time until late spring. The oblong seeds are borne in rounded, dark orange berries that emit a strong, musty smell. The ripe berries drop to the ground where the pulpy layer disintegrates, the seeds germinating almost immediately.
Uses and cultural aspects
Haemanthus deformis is not known to be used for medicinal or magical purposes. The plants are mostly grown by specialist bulb collectors, usually as container subjects.
Growing Haemanthus deformis
Haemanthus deformis presents no great difficulty in cultivation. In temperate climates it is most suitably grown in semi-shaded to fully shaded positions such as on a patio in pots with a diameter of at least 25 cm, in raised beds or rock gardens. In countries with cold winter climates, they are best grown in containers in a cool or slightly heated greenhouse. Plant the bulbs with the neck at, or just below soil level in a well-drained, slightly acid medium comprising equal parts of well decomposed compost or finely milled bark, and river or silica sand. The plants must have at least partial shade and thrive in even heavy shade. Water the plants heavily once per week during the summer growing period, but reduce watering in winter to once every two weeks.
Propagate the plants by offsets or from seed. Offsets are rather slow to form, and are best separated from the mother bulb straight after flowering, just as the new leaves begin to develop. Sow the seeds as soon as they are easily removed from the dark orange, ripe berries. Place the berries in a bowl of water and remove the sticky outer pulp, thus exposing the seeds. Clean the seeds in the water and allow to dry for about an hour. Sow the seeds in seed trays in the same medium recommended for adult bulbs, and cover with a sowing medium to a depth of up to 5 mm. Seeds may take up to two months before the first leaf appears above ground, and a further four to five years to flower for the first time.
The bulbs and leaf bases of Haemanthus deformis are susceptible to attack by mealy bugs, and the leaf margins are chewed by snout beetles at night.
When grown in the garden, Haemanthus deformis makes an excellent companion subject to other shade-loving plants such as Clivia caulescens, Dracaena aletriformis and Drimiopsis maculata.
References and further reading
- Duncan, G.D. 1998. The Kay Bergh bulb house. Veld & Flora 84: 80, 81.
- Duncan, G.D. 2000. Grow bulbs. Kirstenbosch Gardening Series. National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
- Duncan, G.D. 2005. Haemanthus and their cultivation. The Plantsman (new series) 4: 220-226.
- Du Plessis, N.M. & Duncan, G.D. 1989. Bulbous plants of southern Africa. Tafelberg, Cape Town.
- Snijman, D. 1984. A revision of the genus Haemanthus L. (Amaryllidaceae). Journal of South African Botany supplementary vol. 12. National Botanic Gardens of South Africa, Cape Town.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden