Haemanthus albiflos is the best known of the three evergreen species of Haemanthus and with its handsome leaves, long flowering season and red berries is an excellent choice for shady spots in the garden.
All the species are bulbous geophytes with perennial fleshy roots and produce a dense cluster of red, pink or white flowers. The species from the western parts of southern Africa are all winter-growing with a distinct summer dormant period. Those from the summer rainfall parts are mostly summer-growing and dormant in winter, but there are also three evergreen species in this region, namely H. albiflos, H. deformis and H. pauculifolius. In addition to their eye-catching flower heads, the leaves of the various species are particularly attractive and interesting, for example the well known H. sanguineus produces two very broad leathery leaves which lie flat on the ground, H. crispus produces two erect narrow leaves with wavy margins and attractive spots or blotches in the lower parts, and H. pubescens produces two lance-shaped, recurved leaves, densely covered with soft hairs on the upper surface. The most astonishing leaf of all belongs to H. nortieri, which produces a single erect, spoon-shaped leaf with a slightly sticky surface, to which tiny sand granules adhere.
The name Haemanthus is derived from the Greek “haima” meaning blood and “anthos” meaning flower – a reference to the red flowers of most species. Albiflos refers to the white flowers of this particular species.
Haemanthus albiflos grows up to about 250 mm high when in flower, and it has a wide, mainly coastal distribution stretching from the southern Cape through many parts of the Eastern Cape, right up to the northern parts of KwaZulu-Natal.
It is a very variable plant. The oblong leaves vary in colour from pale to dark green or greyish-green and are usually smooth and sometimes shiny. They may occasionally be covered with short, soft hairs, or have yellowish spots on the upper surface. Unlike most other Haemanthus species, which prefer full sun, H. albiflos almost always occurs in shady habitat in forest and bushveld vegetation. The upper half of the bulb is usually exposed above ground and is bright green.
H. albiflos has a long flowering period extending from early April to as late as July (autumn and winter) in the wild, but sporadic blooms may also appear at any time of the year under cultivation. The flower head (known as an umbel in botanical terms) is compact, usually about 30-50 mm wide, and consists of numerous erect, narrow white flowers, enclosed by several broad, greenish-white bracts. The erect stamens protrude conspicuously beyond the tips of the flowers and their anthers turn bright yellow or orange when ripe. Bees and butterflies visit the flowers and are probably the pollinators, but this has not been confirmed. The ripe fruit is a most attractive bright orange or red fleshy berry producing a distinctive musty odour.
Growing Haemanthus albiflos
H. albiflos is one of the easiest of all the Haemanthus species to grow. It requires a dappled shade position similar to that preferred by clivias, and likes to remain undisturbed for many years once established. The soil medium must be well aerated and a suggested medium is equal parts of well rotted compost, coarse river sand and loam. Plant the greenish bulbs with the upper half exposed and the thick fleshy roots spread out horizontally over the medium. It is an ideal plant for a shady rock garden or for difficult parts of the garden receiving poor light, where they can be left to multiply for many years.
It also makes an excellent subject for plastic or terracotta containers and these need not be deep as the roots naturally spread out horizontally. Pots of H. albiflos can be grown very successfully on a shady verandah and it is also suitable as an indoor plant where it should be placed in a positions receiving dappled light but not direct sunlight. Plants like to become pot bound and mature bulbs flower reliably every year, and only need to be divided every seven or eight years when flowering performance starts to diminish. H. albiflos is not hardy and has to be grown under the protection of the cool greenhouse in countries with very cold winter conditions.
Propagation of H. albiflos is by seed and by separation of offsets from thick clumps. Seeds are sown once the ripe berries have become soft and turned a bright orange or red colour from the end of winter to early summer, depending on the particular form being cultivated. Remove the hard oval-shaped seeds from the berries, wash them in water to remove the sticky pulpy layer surrounding them, and allow to dry for a day or two. Sow the seeds evenly in deep seed trays in a medium of equal parts of finely milled bark or finely sifted compost, as well as coarse river sand and loam, ensuring that they are covered with a very thin layer of about 3-4 mm of sowing medium. Water well with a fine rose and place the trays in a shaded position protected from heavy rain, and keep moist by watering well once every two weeks. Germination can take several months, so be patient.
Seedlings should be allowed to remain in the trays for two years, and can be planted out into the garden or into permanent pots in spring at the beginning of their third season, during which time the first flowers can be expected, under ideal conditions.
Offset bulbs are best separated from thick clumps in early spring, as temperatures begin to rise, ensuring that each offset has a good supply of roots. They should not be forcibly broken away from the mother bulbs but should be tugged away gently. They should be replanted as soon as possible and kept well shaded until the bulbs have established themselves and formed additional roots.
Haemanthus albiflos is not often subject to attack by pests or diseases but the leaves are sometimes invaded by the dreaded lily borer, also known as amaryllis caterpillar. The night-flying adult moth lays its eggs on the undersides of the leaves and the caterpillars rapidly bore into the leaf tissue and eventually into the bulb, which can be completely hollowed out in severe infestations. This pest, which is most prevalent during the hot summer months, can be controlled by cutting away and disposing of affected leaves, or by spraying with a carbaryl-based insecticide in severe infestations.