One of the surprises of late summer, with flowerheads like bright shaving brushes popping up from underground bulbs, is Haemanthus coccineus which has a large number of variations and is one of 11 species of Haemanthus.
They generally occur after flowering but may rarely occur simultaneously with the flower. The leaves generally appear from about April to October, although some may be found as early as February. Leaves die down from about October and the bulb lies dormant during summer.
The flowerheads emerge between February and April, usually before the leaves appear. The peduncle is occasionally unmarked, but is most often more-or-less streaked or spotted. The flowerhead comprises 6-9 stiff, red spathe valves surrounding the 25-100 coral to scarlet flowers. The valves are mostly fleshy and may stand erect or sometimes be somewhat lax.
The flowers are soon followed by translucent, fleshy berries containing 1-3 dark wine-coloured seeds. The berries may be white to pale or deep pink in colour.
Occurring in widely varying habitats, mainly coastal scrub and rocky slopes, throughout the winter rainfall region of South Africa, from southern Namibia southwards to the Cape Peninsula and eastwards to Grahamstown. Population sizes may vary from a few plants in a group to dense stands in which there may be hundreds of individuals. They are found in karooid veld types as well as fynbos and renosterveld with rainfall ranging between 100-1 100 mm per year and altitudes from sea level to 1 200 m. They favour fairly protected sites such as rock crevices and shaded kloofs or the shelter of shrubs and bushes.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The generic name Haemanthus is derived from the Greek word haima for blood, and anthos for flower, and alludes to the colour of the perianth in certain species. Coccineus is the Latin word for red or scarlet.
Some of the common names such as April Fool or March lily refer to the flowering time, whereas others such as paintbrush lily and velskoenblaar refer to the appearance of the inflorescence or the leaves. The common name bloedblom is said to have been derived because of the opinion that it stops bleeding.
It was probably the first flower to be collected from Table Mountain and probably also the first illustration of a SA flower to appear in a European publication. The illustration was by the Flemish botanist de L'Obel in 1605.
Like many other amaryllids, Haemanthus coccineus has adapted to the dry period of the year by resting underground in the form of a large bulb. (In the western Cape the dry season is summer.) All above-ground parts dry out during this time to help prevent moisture loss through transpiration. Just before the rainy season is due to start, the flowerhead appears. Sunbirds, noctuid moths and bees are the probable pollinators. Although the berries are fleshy, they are not eaten by animals. Once the seed has matured, the flowerhead topples over and the seed germinates immediately. Seeds have a very short viability period. By flowering and seeding in autumn, which coincides with the first rains, the seedling has a full rainy season to develop sufficiently to withstand its first dry period underground. Leaves usually appear well after the flowers. Because both the inflorescence and the leaves lose relatively large amounts of moisture, this adaptation prevents large quantities of moisture being lost at any one time, reducing stress on the plants.
Fresh leaves were applied as a dressing to septic ulcers and sores and also to the pustules of anthrax. A diuretic was made from the sliced bulb boiled in vinegar and mixed with honey. Asthma was also treated with this mixture. The bulb contains coccinine which is an alkaloid with a known convulsive action.