Family :
Common names:
paintbrush, powderpuff (Eng.); poeierkwas, velskoenblaar (Afr.)

Haemanthus pubescens:Photo:Colin Patterson Jones
Haemanthus pubescens on the West Coast, South Africa
Photo: © Colin Paterson- Jones

Haemanthus may be perceived as brilliant, brazen blood lilies or demure, soft, powderpuffs-in either guise they can surprise and delight you.

Most Haemanthus are deciduous, but just three species (H. albiflos , H. deformis and H. pauculifolius) are evergreen. They have large bulbs, surrounded by fleshy tunics that are often two-ranked and scale-like, and they produce remarkably long, thick roots. Bulbs from semi-arid habitats are usually deeply buried, whereas those found in humid surroundings are superficial and often turn green.

Mature plants have one, two, four or rarely six leaves that are leathery or somewhat fleshy. The leaves grow upright or pressed flat on the ground and they vary from strap-shaped to elliptical. Several species are noted for the dense hairy covering and striking, dark green or red barring on their leaves, particularly in H. dasyphyllus , H. pubescens and H. unifoliatus .

Haemanthus flowers appear in shades of red to pink or rarely white. They are small and clustered together in a compact or spreading umbel-like head, which is held aloft on a thick, fleshy stem known as a scape. Surrounding the head and matching the colour of the flowers are four or more spathe bracts. In semi-arid habitats the bracts are mostly fleshy and held erect but in species from seasonally moist habitats they are often thin-textured and spreading. The flowers are short-tubed and have six narrow, upright or spreading tepals. They produce nectar and carry masses of prominently displayed, yellow pollen, except in H. carneus where the stamens are short. Their scent is disappointingly faint and dull. The inferior ovary has one or two ovules per chamber and carries a straight style ending in a minute stigma.

The fruits are ovoid to globose and in all species except H. tristis, they are berry-like. When fully ripe they vary from white, orange, pink, to red and are usually aromatic. Each berry has a few egg-shaped, fleshy, red, green or opalescent seeds containing a large, green embryo.

The basic chromosome number for the genus is x = 8.

Sadly, as many as 12 Haemanthus species are on South Africa 's Red Data List.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
The name Haemanthus is derived from the Greek words haima and anthos, and refers to the blood-red flowers of H. coccineus, which was first described in the early 17th century.

All 22 Haemanthus species occur in southern Africa . Fifteen species are found almost exclusively in the winter rainfall region and six are found in the summer rainfall region. Only H. albiflos spans both the winter and summer rainfall regions along South Africa 's eastern seaboard. Namaqualand in the Northern Cape is especially rich in Haemanthus species, particularly in the high-lying country west of Springbok. Species such as H. coccineus, H. sanguineus and H. humilis are widespread and occupy habitats from the coast to the inland escarpment. However, several species are very restricted, notably H. canaliculatus, H. pumilio, and H. nortieri. These occupy small, flat, seasonally waterlogged areas that are increasingly threatened by man and the spread of alien invasive plants.

The large bulbs enable Haemanthus plants to persist underground in a dormant state during dry, unfavourable periods. The summer rainfall species are conventional in that they produce flowers and foliage simultaneously in summer. In the winter rainfall climate of Namaqualand and the Western Cape, however, Haemanthus has the remarkable habitat of producing stark, brilliant flower heads in autumn, devoid of any foliage, which only appears in winter. This surprising sight has led to H. coccineus being known as the 'April-fool'.

Compared with other Amaryllidaceae, Haemanthus has especially small flowers. Nevertheless, by being massed together they are visually attractive and a source of copious nectar and pollen. Honeybees are the most frequent visitors but sunbirds also seek out the red-flowered species.

Despite the fleshy fruits being attractive, no authentic observations of animal dispersal have yet been made. Each seed is attached to the fruit wall by a mucilaginous thread and, although extensible, they keep the seeds close to their parents, somewhat like a tether. The fruits of H. tristis are possibly the most interesting of all the species. They have a dull brownish, almost leathery covering that makes them almost indistinguishable from the droppings of small antelope. This novel but perfect camouflage can defy even the most keen-eyed seed collector.

Haemanthus seeds have plenty of reserves, so the seedlings develop quickly and gain a firm foothold before other seeds manage to germinate. Unlike conventional dry seeds, however, fleshy seeds cannot be stored, so they are referred to as recalcitrant.

Economic and cultural value

Haemanthus bulbs were among the first botanical specimens to be collected and transported to Europe from the Cape by Dutch seafarers. Consequently, H. coccineus and H. sanguineus were being cultivated in the Netherlands from early in the 17th century. Here they became known as the two-leafed African Narcissus and the Cape tulip but they failed to attract any commercial interest.

Early Cape records mention that Haemanthus leaves were traditionally used in the treatment of ulcers and that extracts of the bulb were taken as a diuretic and in the treatment of asthma. Their alkaloids, nevertheless, dictate that they should be used with great care.


The following species show how the genus varies:

Photo: Colin Paterson-Jones H. barkerae Snijman: plants up to 200 mm high; bulbs extended into a neck. Leaves 2, dry at flowering, suberect to recurved, strap-shaped to tongue-shaped, 7-80 mm wide, smooth or short-haired, the undersurface barred with dark green and maroon. Flower cluster more or less spreading, on a deep to pale pink scape, spathe bracts 4-6, spreading, acute, pink, flowers 11-21 mm long, pale to deep pink. Flowering time: March to April. Amongst rocks in heavy soils. Northern Cape : Nieuwoudtville to Calvinia and Tanqua Karoo.
Photo: Colin Paterson Jones H. canaliculatus Levyns: plants up to 200 mm high; bulbs compressed, with thick, scale-like tunics. Leaves usually 2, dry at flowering, suberect to recurved, strap-shaped, 5-27 mm wide, channeled, smooth, the undersurface barred with red or dark green. Flower cluster more or less compact, on a deep red scape, spathe bracts 5-7, slightly spreading, acute, bright red or rarely pink, flowers 20-30 mm long, bright red or rarely pink. Flowering time: December to March, after fire. Swampy coastal flats. Western Cape : Rooi Els to Betty's Bay.
Photo Colin Paterson-Jones H. crispus Snijman: small plants, at most 150 mm high; bulbs more or less globose with a long, slender neck. Leaves usually 2, dry at flowering, suberect to recurved, strap-shaped, 7-33 mm wide, channeled with undulate edges, smooth or covered with short, stiff hairs, the undersurface blotched with maroon or dark green. Flower cluster compact on a dark red or pink scape, spathe bracts 4 or 5(6), erect, waxy, blunt, red or rarely pink, flowers 15-26 mm long, red or sometimes pink. Flowering time: March to April. Stony, lower slopes usually in heavy soils. Namaqualand to Olifants River Valley in the Western Cape.
Photo: COlin Paterson-Jones H. humilis Jacq.: plants up to 300 mm high; bulbs more or less globose with plain tunics. Leaves 2(3), young at flowering, elliptical, 13-150 mm wide, usually hairy. Flower cluster spreading on a green to deep pink scape, spathe bracts (4)5-10, soon drooping, acute, pale to dark pink, flowers 7-27 mm long, pink or white. Flowering time: November to February. Usually in rock outcrops on southern slopes (widespread throughout the inland summer-rainfall region of southern Africa ).

In the Garden
In general, Haemanthus are not grown for their lavish floral displays. Instead, species such as H. coccineus , H. unifoliatus , H. nortieri, H. crispus, and H. deformis are probably more appreciated for their elegant or unusual leaves.

Haemanthus are best grown in a rockery or as container plants, in full sun or partial shade. They can be propagated from seed, bulb cuttings and offsets. H. albiflos, an evergreen plant suited to shady conditions, is probably the most widely cultivated species. This species and the closely related H. pauculifolius , multiply most readily from offsets and eventually form dense plantings. Whereas H. albiflos and H. humilis may flower in their third or fourth year, some of the Cape species are extremely slow growing. For instance, H. nortieri [see Amaryllidaceae ] can take almost 17 years to mature. Haemanthus are not suited to extremely cold places and will perish in severe frost.

Haemanthus crispus. Photo:Colin Paterson-Jones
© Colin Paterson- Jones

References and further reading

  • Du Plessis, N. & Duncan, G. 1989. Bulbous plants of southern Africa. Tafelberg, Cape Town.
  • Manning, J., Goldblatt, P. & Snijman, D. 2002. The color encyclopedia of Cape bulbs . Timber Press, Portland , Cambridge.
  • Smith , C.A. 1966. Common names of South African plants. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 35.
  • Snijman, D.A. 1984. A revision of the genus Haemanthus (Amaryllidaceae). Journal of South African Botan y , Suppl. Vol. 12.
  • Watt, J.M. & Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G. 1962. The medicinal and poisonous plants of southern Africa and eastern Africa . Livingstone, Edinburgh and London.


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Dee Snijman
Compton Herbarium, Kirstenbosch
Photographs: Colin Paterson-Jones
Fernwood, Cape Town
August 2005


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This page forms part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute's plant information website www.plantzafrica.com