Haemanthus, a member of the Amaryllidaceae family, is an entirely southern African genus of 22 species of bulbous plants that are endemic to South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho and Swaziland.
The genus takes its name from the Greek words haima meaning blood, and anthos meaning flower, and is a reference to the reddish flowers of H. coccineus and H. sanguineus, two of the first-described species. Bulbs of H. coccineus collected at the Cape of Good Hope first reached Europe in the early 17th century and were possibly the first South African plants to produce flowers there – they are known to have flowered at Middelburg in The Netherlands in 1604.
Most of the species are concentrated in Namaqualand in the arid north western part of South Africa: 15 species occur almost exclusively in the winter rainfall region. Six species are found in the summer rainfall areas and only H. albiflos is known from both regions. H. albiflos is the most commonly grown Haemanthus worldwide; it is highly variable, evergreen and virtually indestructible. It is a most obliging and free-flowering plant that thrives on benign neglect.
Confusion still exists as to the morphological differences that separate Haemanthus and Scadoxus. Scadoxus, which was previously included under Haemanthus, is distinguished primarily by its rhizomatous rootstock and thin-textured leaves that have distinct midribs. In contrast, Haemanthus has true bulbs and succulent leaves without midribs. The leaves of most Scadoxus are arranged alternately on a distinct pseudostem whereas in Haemanthus a pseudostem is absent and the leaves are either single or arranged in opposite rows.
Haemanthus species are afforded high value by specialist collectors because of their wide variation in leaf form, texture and orientation; their dense showy flower heads enclosed by colourful bracts; and their attractive ripe berries. They are ideal subjects for containers and raised beds and, depending on the species, do well in sunny or shady rock garden pockets. When grown in pots, all the species are unfortunately highly susceptible to infestation by mealy bugs, which multiply between the bulb tunics. Apart from H. albiflos, three of the best species to grow are the winter-growing H. coccineus, the summer-growing H. humilis and the evergreen H. deformis.
Haemanthus coccineus (April Fool)
H. coccineus is widely known as ‘April Fool’ due to its tendency to bloom around 1 April, following early autumn rains. The blooms provide a welcome splash of reddish orange and to residents of the winter rainfall region of southern Africa it is one of the most recognisable members of the genus. It has a very wide distribution, ranging from southern Namibia to Port Elizabeth. The bulbs are long-lived and best planted in late summer (late January to early February) so that they are in the ground before the flower heads appear. The flower stem extends from 8 to 40 cm above the ground, and the large fleshy bulb produces two broad (usually), tongue-shaped leathery leaves that grow throughout winter and die down in early summer. The bulbs are planted with the top of the neck just below soil level, in full sun or light shade. H. coccineus prefers a fast-draining, loamy or sandy medium such as can be made of equal parts of coarse river sand or grit, and finely sifted compost. Once established, the bulbs should be left undisturbed for at least five years or until growth and flowering performance deteriorate, because they resent disturbance to their perennial fleshy roots. Robust, broad-leaved forms of H. coccineus are best grown in rock garden pockets whereas smaller forms do well in pots of 20 to 25 cm diameter. This species is best propagated from seeds sown as soon as they can be easily removed from the bright red, fleshy berries. Thereafter patience is required as the first flowers can only be expected after about five years.
Haemanthus humilis (Rabbit’s Ear)
A native to the summer rainfall parts of South Africa, H. humilis is widely distributed from the Eastern and Northern Cape to Mpumalanga. It is a very variable species – ranging from dwarf forms that are just 3 cm high to robust specimens that exceed 30 cm. There are two subspecies, the widespread H. humilis subsp. humilis that has ‘included’ (short) stamens and the less common H. humilis subsp. hirsutus that usually has well-protruding stamens. The bulbs produce two broad, smooth or densely hairy leaves. Flowering, in pink or white, takes place any time from September to March. Both subspecies need light shade and are very successfully cultivated in 25 to30 cm diameter pots or rock garden pockets. They like a sharply drained medium such as one made with equal parts of finely sifted compost (or milled bark) and coarse river sand (or industrial silica). The bulbs are planted with the top of the neck at, or just above, soil level. An insufficiently well-drained medium results in rotting of the roots and, in extreme instances, the bulbs. The plants multiply fairly well by offset formation; the offsets are best removed and replanted in spring, as new growth begins. When grown in pots, in summer it is important for the medium to dry out sufficiently between watering, which should be at well-spaced intervals –typically about once a week. In winter the medium is best left to dry out completely. Forms from Lesotho and the Free State are probably frost hardy.
Haemanthus deformis (Dwarf Haemanthus)