Anne LatreilleA plant that’s a moment in time

How often is a plant ‘a moment in time’? I was reminded of this phrase some weeks back by Michael Morrison, the long-time head gardener for the late great Dame Elisabeth Murdoch at Cruden Farm, outside Melbourne.

Blood lily, Haemanthus coccineus in my garden

Blood lily or paintbrush lily, Haemanthus coccineus, in my garden. Photo Andrew Latreille

He was talking about lilacs. They’re magnificent, he said. But you have to accept that the magnificence – their flowering – is fleeting, that they’re a moment in time. For the rest of the year they don’t look much, so make sure to put them where there’s plenty of room, and where there are other plants that create space and beauty.

Haemanthus coccineus

Haemanthus coccineus, showing the fat, speckled stems. Photo Andrew Latreille

You can say much the same for Haemanthus coccineus, a South African plant that has been described as ‘one of the surprises of late summer, with flowerheads like bright shaving brushes popping up from underground bulbs’.

I can’t remember quite how, or when, I acquired one or two of these unusual bulbs – but I do recall not knowing what to do with them, and that I couldn’t follow Michael’s instructions! Wandering around my garden, there was neither plenty of room, nor an open space where they would look good with other plants. So I squeezed them into an empty patch on a strip of dirt next to a narrow pathway adjoining our house, backed by a tall timber fence. That will do for the moment, I thought, until I find the right place. Some 15 years later, they’re still there, and have multiplied appreciably.

Blood lily, Haemanthus coccineus - aerial view

Blood lily or paintbrush lily, Haemanthus coccineus. You can just see the mouths of the bulbs poking out of the leaves. Photo Andrew Latreille.

The bulbs live in poor, arid soil between some struggling violets and a line of cliveas. They’re never fed, they’re not watered and they receive little or no sun. Yet every year in early March they come up smiling. Looking for light, striking a blaze of colour.

Haemanthus coccineus

Haemanthus coccineus – striking vermillion flowers with dozens of golden stamens. Photo Andrew Latreille

I walk out twice a day to see how they are travelling, because their flowering is a joy, as is their structure. The large bulbs poke up and crack open. Fat single stems spear upwards, close-furled buds at the top. The buds broaden and slowly open, deep red petals making an inviting statement with striking stamens at the centre. Then the petals lie back and a circle of berries takes centre stage as floppy broad leaves – two or three for each bulb – emerge from the soil. The berries dry off but the leaves add beauty through late autumn, winter and spring before they slump and sneak underground in early summer.

Haemanthus coccineus flower and leaves

Haemanthus coccineus flower and first leaves

Haemanthus coccineus, commonly called blood lily or paintbrush lily

Haemanthus coccineus, commonly called blood lily or paintbrush lily. Photo Andrew Latreille

This flowering is a special event, and maybe it is why, unwittingly, I placed my first Haemanthus bulbs as I did. The combination of their short-lived blooms and lavish leaves with – some months later – the adjoining orange cliveas gives two moments of magic in a part of my garden that has nothing much else to recommend it.

(For the record, the generic name Haemanthus comes from the Greek word haima (blood) and anthos (flower), while coccineus is the Latin word for red or scarlet. Go to Plantzafrica to find out more about this plant, which is said to have been the first flower collected from Table Mountain in South Africa, and to have been illustrated in 1605 by the Flemish botanist de L’Obel).

[NOTE – Haemanthus coccineus has a wide variety of common names, including blood lily, paintbrush lily, March flower, April Fool, blood flower, powderpuff lily, king-of-Candia, and pincushion. Using the common name often confuses it with Scadoxus multiflorus which is also often called blood lily but has quite a different form.]

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Anne Latreille

About Anne Latreille

Writer, editor and journalist. Author of 'Garden Voices' (about Australian garden designers past and present, September 2013), 'Garden of a Lifetime' (Dame Elisabeth Murdoch at Cruden Farm), 'Kindred Spirits' and 'The Natural Garden'. Melbourne, Victoria.

21 thoughts on “A plant that’s a moment in time

  1. Am devastated that my own blood lilies seem to have gone to dust. They were great in a pot last year – planted them out, fab leaves all though the year, then dying back as expected. But since then the bulbs started looking all dried out and haven’t flowered. Seems I am a failure at neglect! 🙁

    • When planting do you completely bury the foliage or do you sit the bulb proud of the soil like you do with hippeastrums. I bought one at Beecroft Garden Club last Friday night and have researched them today but no where does it say to bury the bulb or leave it proud in the soil. Your help would be appreciated. I have planted it in a pot today. Looking at the specimens on the internet there is no foliage showing when they flower. Thank you Catherine a reply would be wonderful. Sincerely, Gillian Parsons.

  2. I have multi bulbs in a pot that are all getting their leaves at once. Can I separate now. the leaves on mine grow up to a mtr long so wont be planting in the ground. Should I just wait now until after the leaves and I hope at least 1 flower. I have been very neglectful and didn’t realise it had bulbed out so many times

    • Sorry Deb – I missed your question and Anne isn’t available right now. In general you don’t mess about with bulbs unless they’re dormant, which for these South African bulbs means from early summer after the leaves have died back.

  3. I bought 6 of these bulbs at the Wisconsin State Fair last weekend( zone 5) I was wondering do I plant them now or wait until spring and do I have to dug them up in fall are winters here can very cold here below zero!!

  4. Hi Jeff – I don’t think you could grow Haemanthus outside in Wisconsin. These are South African bulbs which are dormant through the spring and summer, then flower in late summer-early fall and then have those two big fleshy leaves right through the winter, which is when it rains in their natural habitat. Wouldn’t they get covered in snow at your place?

  5. Are there more than one species? I have one flowering at the moment which is tall with spots on the stem and a different leaf. The others flower at christmas after the big glossy flat leaves have died. Leaves die back then flower appears.

  6. We have them growing in our garden. How, and when, would you divide the bulbs. How would you know if there is more than one to separate? These are spectacular and a welcome addition to our garden. Thanks

    • Hi Lea – if the bulbs are in the ground they shouldn’t need watering, and certainly not when they are dormant (ie no leaves showing). If they are in a pot, water them occasionally when they have leaves.

    • Hi Jenny – the best time to dig up any bulb is when it’s dormant, with no leaves or flowers showing. The Haemanthus in my garden are like that now and I’ve just dug them up and put them in a pot temporarily while I build a new garden where they’ll be replanted. Just make sure that you replant them at the same level they are now, which is usually with the top of the bulb at ground level.

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