Cameron & Rhoda McMaster's

The Interesting forms of Haemanthus
in the Eastern Cape
by Cameron McMaster

At least five species of this fascinating genus each with a number of forms and varieties, occur in the Eastern Cape. 

The most widespread 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. 

When new telephone lines were being put in at the coast, we picked up a
number of H. albiflos that had been uprooted. We planted them under a tree, where the leaves were frosted off in the first winter, but subsequently they
retained their leaves even at -5C overnight. Seedlings keep their leaves even at -2C overnight. It seems that they are more frost-hardy when the leaves have grown out in situ under cold conditions. Once when we picked some stems with green seeds and left them in a box for a few weeks to ripen, some bulbils formed at the flower ends of the stems, amongst the seed stalks.

An interesting small form with oval leaves occurs as single individual plants on bush clad hillsides in the Keiskama River valley. Another form with grey-green oval leaves, which we at first mistook for H. humilis before it flowered, occurs in thicket vegetation on steep north facing  slopes  in the Kei River valley, where it grows in rock crevices. 

Haemanthus montanus occurs in isolated local populations from the Eastern Cape northwards and 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 months, the period during which its fairly hostile habitat remains moist.  It occurs in dense stands, the large cream flowers appearing in early 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. It adapts well to gardens and containers, and despite its long dormancy from June to
December, is an attractive subject. 

H. humilis humilis has fairly round flat leaves, flowers in January and is deciduous. New leaves appear with the flowers and persist through to late spring. It occurs in isolated populations between rocks on steep cliff faces.
The different populations are extremely variable with regard to size, the
degree of hairiness and the colour of leaves and flowers. The most widespread is a medium sized pink form, very common on steep north facing krantzes in the Cathcart district. It was always a puzzle to us how many young plants became established on almost vertical places between the rock strata on cliffs.  When handling ripe seed, we soon realised that this is due to fact that the seed is connected to sticky threads that enable it to adhere to virtually any surface and, under favourable conditions they become rooted seedlings.

An isolated population of H. humilis which has small grey hairy leaves and cream flowers, occurs on the farm Keibolo in the Kei River Valley growing
under acacia trees in semi shade. 

Another amazing giant form grows in full shade on a south facing cliff along the Kei River. It has massive dark green leaves as large as dinner plates,
almost hairless, and gorgeous large deep pink flowers. It occurs here together with other shade loving bulbs such as Haemanthus albiflos and Veltheimia bracteata - probably the furthest inland occurrence of the latter species which normally grows in dune forest along the East Cape coasts. A leaf of this giant form that we put in a plant press surprised us after a month or two with a few (flattish!) bulbils that developed in the press, having some space created by the thickness of the leaf.

In stark contrast to the "giant" is a diminutive from which occurs near King Williams Town. It is scarcely more than 15cm in height with tiny flowers not more than 4cm in diameter.

Another particularly dark pink form of H. humilis occurs in the Central Karoo in a region with a rainfall less than 300mm per annum and night temperatures that can drop to -10C in the winter. We found them growing under the shelter of rocks near New Bethesda between Graaff Reinet and Middelburg. 

The rare H. carneus which also flowers in January is very closely related to
H. humilis, the differences being a rather 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 grassland on the Bosberg mountain near Somerset East. Even within the contiguous population here, which extends from acacia thicket near the bottom of the mountain to grassland near the summit, there is considerable variation. The lower altitude plants have paler flowers and are distinctly more hairy than those that occur in the open grassland near the top of the mountain.

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 cream form of H. humilis from Keibolo mentioned above.  These seem to be intermediate between H.carneus and H. humilis.

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 the dwarf form of H. albiflos mentioned above 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 on the underside.

There must be many more populations of Haemanthus in the Eastern Cape -
a region so botanically exciting and so rich in biodiversity.

This brief introduction to the genus in this region will hopefully encourage
intrepid wild flower enthusiasts to explore the Eastern Cape.

You can view these plants in their wild habitats
by joining a botanical tour offered by African Bulbs