Paintbrush Lily

Having received good rains over the hottest months between November and February, our magnificent Fynbos kingdom is blazon with colour. Standing out this month is the striking Paintbrush Lily (Haemanthus coccineus).

This member of the Amaryllis family stands out as one of South Africa’s most captivating bulbs, boasting 22 distinct Haemanthus species. Regrettably, a disconcerting reality shadows this botanical marvel, with as many as 12 of these species finding a place on South Africa’s Red Data List.

The nomenclature “Haemanthus” traces its roots to the Greek words “haima” and “anthos,” a tribute to the blood-red blossoms of H. coccineus, immortalized in botanical history during the early 17th century.

Endowed with sizable bulbs, these plants exhibit a remarkable ability to endure unfavourable conditions by persisting underground in a dormant state. Yet, this resilience is not without a cautionary note, as the bulbs are imbued with toxicity. Intriguingly, historical records from reveal that Haemanthus bulbs were among the pioneering botanical specimens transported to Europe from the Cape by intrepid Dutch seafarers.

As a result, H. coccineus and H. sanguineus found themselves under cultivation in the Netherlands as early as the 17th century, earning the monikers “two-leafed African Narcissus” and “Cape tulip.” However, commercial interest eluded these captivating species.

Archival accounts from the Cape region attest to the traditional use of Haemanthus leaves in ulcer treatment, while bulb extracts were consumed as a diuretic and for asthma management. Yet, a note of caution arises from the alkaloids / toxins present in these plants, urging meticulous care in their utilization. (Special Note: *Please don’t try this at home)

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