Scientific name: Haemanthus coccineus
Plant type: Perennial bulb
Environment: A sheltered location in full sun to part shade with well-drained soil
Uses: Boarder planting, rock garden, or in a container
Haemanthus coccineus, or paintbrush lily, is a perennial bulb native to Namibia and South Africa. In South Africa it is found throughout the Cape Provinces.
The color of the flowers influence both the genus and specific epithet of Haemanthus coccineus. Haemanthus comes from the Greek words for blood, haima, and flower, anthos, referring to the deep red color of the inflorescence. The specific epithet, coccineus, is the Latin word for the color scarlet.
It is believed that H. coccineus was one of the first South African plants to appear in a European publication in an illustration by Matthias de l’Obel, a Flemish botanist, in 1605. While the plant was known to European botanists as early as the 1600s, it was not formally named until 1753 in Linnaeus’ publication of Species Plantarum.
The bright red outer structures that appear to be petals are actually what are known as spathe valves, which surround anywhere from 25 to 100 individual flowers. The flower head of Haemanthus coccineus appear before its leaves, a function known as hysteranthy. After flowering and fruiting, two, or sometimes three, large strap like leaves will appear. This adaptation helps prevents major water loss at one time, as both the leaves and inflorescence lose substantial amounts of moisture.
In its native range H. coccineus is used for its medicinal properties as a treatment for a host of maladies such as ulcers or asthma. In large quantities, however, the bulb of H. coccineus can be toxic, due to the presence of harmful alkaloids.
Haemanthus coccineus grows in a variety of habitats. It is found on a diverse range of soils, in regions with annual rainfalls of 100-1100 mm and at altitudes from sea level to 1,200 m. Throughout these areas it is often found in rock crevices, steep ravines, or below larger shrubs. In home gardens, H. coccineus prefers a sheltered location in full sun to partial shade with well-drained soil.
Featured Plant Contributors: Text, profile, and photos Victoria Stewart