PLANT OF THE MONTH
By Geoff Nichols
Haemanthus albiflos; White Paint Brush; Witpoeierkwas (Afrikaans) licishamlilo (Siswati); uzaneke, uzeneke (Zulu)
This plant is heavily utilised by traditional healers and herb gatherers for use in traditional medicine. It has declined in the wild, where it occurs on our eastern seaboard in coastal thickets and drier forests from the Southern and Eastern Cape, into KwaZulu-Natal. Fortunately it still exists on the inaccessible, steep krantzes that make up much of the landscape of parts of coastal KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.
I would really only recommend this species as a container plant, in shallow pans or trays. It tends to get lost in a garden, unless you are a plant collector and keep other plants from smothering the bulbs. If you have hundreds of bulbs to play with, then it makes a very good bedding species in semi-shade. It likes dappled sunlight and will grow in a temperate climate with frost, as long as the bulb is in a sheltered position.
It is an easy container plant to grow using a loose growing medium of leaf mould and coarse river sand. The well-drained mixture allows the roots to dry out and not rot the base of the bulb. In a flowerbed, ensure that the soil is well-drained and rich in organic matter.
Bulb collectors prize this species and, as long as you follow the climatic rules of the summer rainfall region by allowing the plant to rest during the dry winter months, the plant will reward the grower with a late winter flourish of flowers, followed by the new leaves in early summer. The flowers appear in late winter and just pop up from the centre of the leaves and, in the darker parts of the forest, these white blooms with their yellow, pollen-tipped anthers, stand out from the green background.
The fruits are borne at the end of the flower stalk and when ripe, they turn a bright orange colour, making an even more striking show on your verandah or in your shade house. The flesh of these fruits has a musky smell that attracts forest animals like Bush Pig and Porcupine (both of which, when they find a colony of these plants, are not averse to eating the bulbs rather than the fruits), Blue Duiker and even Bushbuck, and I have watched an Olive Thrush picking fruit and eating the fleshy, orange outer covering. With Bushpig and Porcupine in a forest, it is little wonder that the plants have retreated to the more inaccessible krantzes, ledges and rocky outcrops, out of reach of these animals. The whitish seed is about the size of a pea, has a shiny surface and will germinate in a matter of days once the flesh has been peeled off. Mealy-bug can be a problem in cultivation if it gets into the roots of the plant but with a well-balanced nutrient regime, the plant will remain vigourous and outgrow the pests. Amaryllis caterpillar is a problem in plant collections but vigilance is the key to controlling this pest. Molerats also tend to attack this species, eating the bulb completely.
The Grapevine August