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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]