Haemanthus L. (Amaryllidaceae) TOW

Confined to South Africa and Namibia, the 22 currently known Haemanthus species are characteristically fleshy, often hairy plants, well known for their compact, brush-like inflorescences. Their specialised fruits are berries which contain a few large, moisture-rich seeds. Bulbs of Haemanthus were amongst the first plants gathered at the Cape and subsequently cultivated in the gardens of Europe. The earliest known description appeared in 1605 where plants (probably H. coccineus and H. sanguineus) were given the phrase name Narcissus Africanus sive Narcissus exoticus. The name Haemanthus was first proposed by Hermann in 1687 and thereafter appeared in many publications in the form of Haemanthus africanus. Baker published a taxonomic treatment of Haemanthus in Flora Capensis (1896), which included Scadoxus. In a brief review of the genus by Friis and Norval in 1976, the generic limits of the Haemanthus were amended and the genus Scadoxus reinstated. As presently circumscribed, Haemanthus includes only species with true bulbs, distichous fleshy leaves and a chromosome complement of 16.

The last comprehensive taxanomic treatment of Haemanthus was by Dr Dierdré Snijman of the Compton Herbarium, Kirstenbosch, Cape Town, published in 1984 (Journal of South African Botany, Supplementary Volume No. 12), from which much of the information in this introduction is taken. She lists 21 species in this revision and subsequently described one further species (Haemanthus pauculifolius). Of the 22 species, 14 occur exclusively in the winter rainfall region with a concentration of species in the dry Namaqualand region of the North West Cape. Six species occur exclusively in the summer rainfall region and there are two species which overlap into both regions, namely H. coccineus which has the widest range extending from Namaqualand to the Keiskamma River in the Eastern Cape and H. albiflos which is a summer rainfall species, extending as far west as Still Bay in the winter rainfall region.

Most species bear two leaves each year. The shape, pubescence, markings and orientation are valuable taxinomically. In the evergreen species H. albiflos and H. deformis, leaves persist beyond a year, resulting in 4 to 6 visible leaves. The majority of individuals in H. unifoliatus and H. nortieri and H. pauculifolius have only a solitary leaf, but in the latter species, being evergreen, the leaf persists and may exhibit two leaves. Haemanthus flowers are borne in an umbel surrounded by membranous to fleshy spathe valves, the position, number and texture of which is taxinomically important. The fruit is a globose to elliptical berry which when ripe is soft, pulpy and often translucent varying in colour – white, yellow, orange, red and various shades of pink, depending on the species. The seeds are succulent, smooth and greenish-white to wine red.

Dr Dee Snijman, in her article "What makes Southern Africa’s Amaryllidaceae special" in the IBSA Bulletin No. 42 (1994), describes the seed dispersal as follows: "When in fruit the scape of Haemanthus elongates and gradually flops to the ground. The funicle which holds the seed to the fruit wall produces copious mucilage, aiding germination by protecting the seed from desiccation. This mode of dispersal is thought to be one in which the seeds are shed in "safe-sites", namely patches close to the parents’ suitable habitat. This strategy maximises the suitability of the niche in which the seed is deposited which in turn maximises seedling survival. However, the species’ ability to spread is limited." It was always a puzzle to me how plants of H. humilis could become established on almost vertical places between the rock strata on cliffs where they grow. When handling ripe seed, we soon realised that this is due to fact that the seeds are connected to sticky threads that enable them to adhere to virtually any surface and, under favourable conditions they become rooted seedlings. This feature is probably common to other cliff growing species.

Dr Snijman has classified Haemanthus into four groups of closely allied species:

H. humilis Group

1. H. humilis Jacq. 3. H. montanus Baker

2. H. carneus Ker Gawler 4. H. avasmontanus Dinter

H. crispus group

5. H. crispus Snijman 7. H. tristis Snijman

6. H. barkerae Snijman 8. H. namaquensis R.A. Dyer

H. albiflos group

9. H. albiflos Jacq. 11. H. pauculifolius Snijman

10. H. deformis Hook f.

H. coccineus group

12. H. sanguineus Jacq. 18. H. nortieri Isaac

13. H. canaliculatus Levyns 19. H. coccineus L.

14. H. pumilio Jacq. 20. H. dasyphyllus Snijman

15. H. lanceifolius Jacq. 21. H. unifoliatus Snijman

16. H. amarylloides Jacq. 22. H. pubescens L.f.

17. H. graniticus Snijman

The Haemanthus humilis group, which are summer rainfall species, flower from mid summer. Haemanthus avasmontanus is known from the type specimens only, collected from the Auasberge, south east of Windhoek in central Namibia. The winter rainfall species, which include both the H crispus and H. coccineus groups flower in autumn. A number of species in the winter rainfall region are locally endemic and under considerable threat. The most notable of these are H. tristis, H canaliculatus, H. pumilio and H. lanceifolius. The H. albiflos group are evergreen and flower in winter or early spring.

My personal experience of Haemanthus is confined largely to the summer rainfall species, and more specifically to those which occur in the Eastern Cape. My observations of Haemanthus in the Eastern Cape were published in the September 2004 edition of Veld and Flora, the organ of the South African Botanical Society.

I have been fascinated by the variability of local populations, particularly of the H. humilis humilis group which occur over a wide range of habitats. H. humilis is widespread but occurs in isolated and localised populations in specialised habitats, which is probably the reason for the variation between populations. The most spectacular form is one we call "Giant" which we observed with binoculars growing on a steep cliff in full shade on the opposite bank of the Great Kei River. I had to swim the river and scale the cliff to get seed, and now have a well established population in the nursery as a seed source and bulbs of various ages for sale. It has leaves as large as 60cm in diameter and it has an enormous flower head. In sharp contrast is a miniature form growing near King Williams Town with tiny flower heads on stems less than 20cm in height, which we call "Dwarf". Two other noteworthy variations of H. humilis in the Eastern Cape are an early flowering form from the Graaff Reinet area of the central Karoo. This form has small cerise flowers with bright yellow stamens – very, very attractive. We have also collected seed from a pure white form with pubescent leaves growing in Acacia thicket in the Stutterheim district – of which we now have stock.

Closely allied to H. humilis is the enigmatic H. carneus known from only a very few disjunct populations. This rare species flowers in January and is distinguished by a looser, widely spreading umbel and stamens included well within the perianth, the only known Haemanthus with this feature. It has the same growth pattern as H. humilis, with leaves emerging just after the flowers and persisting to late spring. It occurs in Acacia thicket and grassland on a mountain near Somerset East. One wonders whether H. carneus should be considered separate from H. humilis on the basis of the small difference mentioned above. What confuses the issue is a further form which occurs some 40km further west on Bruintjieshoogte, which has stamens the same length as the perianth tube, a feature shared by the white form of H. humilis from Stutterheim mentioned above. These seem to be intermediate between H. carneus and H. humilis. Isolated populations of Haemanthus with included stamens occurring near Escourt in Natal and near Jagersfontain in the Free State, have been attributed to H. carneus. Charles Craib writing in IBSA Bulletin No. 48 (1999) expressing the same reservation, also queried this distinction, basing his query on the fact that populations of H. carneus and H. humilis hirsutus occur near to each other in identical habitats near Estcourt. Dr Snijman, commenting in the same publication suggests that the shorter stamens of H. carneus could be an adaptation to exploit a different pollinator to H. humilis, and that should this be the case, it is possible that two taxanomic entities might be reproductively isolated in the wild – despite their shared physical habitats and close geographic proximity to one another.

Haemanthus montanus occurs in isolated local populations from the Eastern Cape northwards. The Bedford district is probably its most southern extremity. H. montanus grows in small areas of poorly drained shallow soil with an impervious substratum. It completes its annual cycle in four to five months, the period during which its fairly hostile habitat remains moist. It occurs in dense stands, the large cream flowers appearing from December to January, rapidly followed by two upright leaves. The seed ripens by mid-February and germinates rapidly around the parent plants. The leaves dry off and blow away by the end of May when all signs of the bulb population have vanished.

The most widespread Haemanthus in the Eastern Cape is H. albiflos which is amazingly adaptive and versatile in its habitat. It is a particularly desirable and easy to grow garden subject and is also suitable as a ground cover in areas of semi-shade. It is equally at home in deep shade on forest floors, on rocky sea shores exposed to salt spray, in coastal dune forest, on cliff faces in hot river valleys where it clings in large clumps to crevasses in full sun, and in shady places on high altitude inland mountain ranges. It is evergreen and multiplies vegetatively, as well as from seed. The attractive white flowers appear in May and the ripe seeds are carried in equally attractive clusters of scarlet fruit.

It is very surprising to find the West Cape species, H. coccineus, which flowers in autumn, occurring as far east as the Keiskamma River valley near Hamburg It grows here in Valley Thicket vegetation together with a small form of H. albiflos which flowers in winter, so they don't hybridize. H. coccineus occurs from here, a summer rainfall region, westwards through the winter rainfall region of the Western Cape and up to the arid regions of Namaqualand and Namibia, an enormous range of 2000+ kilometers and climate variation! The flower stems can be reddish, or blotched with red. and the leaves have varying degrees of stripes and dots on the underside.

Recently we moved to Napier in the Western Cape where H. coccineus and H. sanguineus grow in the wild. Both species have very similar flowers and occur in the same habitats. They are only easily distinguishable by the leaves, and since they bloom before leaves emerge, it is sometimes a puzzle to be sure of the species. In contrast to H coccineus, H. sanguineus has tough, leathery leaves, rounder in shape with a distinct reddish margin and always flat on the ground. There are no markings on the underside of the leaves.

Haemanthus are easy to propagate from seed. Seed will germinate soon after ripening but germination can be retarded by keeping it in a fridge. Sowing of seed is easiest after a strong radicle has formed, when they can be placed in rows in a seed box of well drained seedling mix with the radicle in the soil and the seed on the surface. Water sparingly but do not allow the seed box to dry out. Leaves form rapidly. Most species retain their leaves for the first year. Seedling bulbs can be kept in seed boxes for a year or two after which they should be transferred to individual containers. The secret is well drained soil rich in organic matter. Winter rainfall species should be kept dry in summer and only watered again when growing season commences in late summer. Summer rainfall species are more tolerant of watering all year round and should not be allowed to dry out completely in their dormant phase. Evergreen species should be kept moist all year round. Species from high altitudes such as H. humilis, H. carneus and H. montanus should be fairly hardy and are able to tolerate 5 to 6 degrees of frost.

We have found H. albiflos, H. coccineus and H. humilis "Giant" the easiest to propagate and fastest growers. While not difficult to cultivate, other species are rather slower to develop. It will be interesting to have comments from other growers concerning their experience in propagating Haemanthus. The wonderful flowers that are eventually produced are ample reward for patience and care in growing them.

Cameron McMaster, africanbulbs@haznet.co.za