Haemanthus albiflos - Cactus Club

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Haemanthus albiflos

Plant of the Month > Species G to H

by Bruce Brethauer                                 

   It's the holiday season, and the "Big Box" stores are stocking up on the usual seasonal plants, including Poinsettias, Christmas Cactus, paperwhites, and Amaryllis. While the genus Amaryllis is small, only including 2 species, the greater Amaryllis family (the Amaryllidaceae) is much larger, and includes many plants which are popular in cultivation, including the "Resurrection Lily", Snow Drops, Crinum, and many others. Dedicated growers of the South African bulb plants cultivate many others, and a few genera are also popular with the growers of succulents.

   Haemanthus albiflos is an attractive South African species which has a wide appeal. In regions with a Mediterranean climate, it is a popular garden plant; in other regions (with hard freezes and extended cold in the winter months), it is regarded as a pot plant. It is grown for its distinctive "shaving brush" inflorescence consisting of multiple small flowers with short, narrow white petals and long white filaments topped with anthers which produce golden pollen. The flowers may be followed by fleshy berries, which will ripen to an orange to scarlet color. The bulbs grow at the surface of the ground, or half exposed. These are green and bear the leaf scars from the leaves of previous years. In time, the plants will offset, producing clumps with 10 or more bulbs. These are evergreen plants, retaining their leaves throughout the year (unlike many other bulb plants from the same region, which shed their leaves seasonally). Every year, each bulb produces only two new leaves. In my experience, the leaves from the previous year are retained until the current year's leaves are established, at which point the older leaves begin to die back; but this plant can retain leaves longer still, and bulbs may have as many as 3 pairs of leaves at once. The leaves of older, well established plants can grow to about 16 inches in length, and to about 3 inches or so in width, but on my plants, the leaves are smaller, averaging about 5 inches long and 2 to 2.5 inches wide The leaf margins bear "peach fuzz" fibers, but some populations may produce leaves which are uniformly "fuzzy" across their surfaces.

   This species has a wide distribution in South Africa, with populations occurring in both winter, and summer rainfall areas. It is an adaptable plant, and may grow opportunistically, producing new growth whenever conditions are favorable rather than being locked into a strictly winter or summer growing regimen. The flowering season is long, with flowers being produced anywhere from fall through winter, but authorities indicate that some plants may produce flowers sporadically at other times. So far, my experience has been that each bulb will produce only one flower per season - and so far, all of the blooms on my plants were produced in the fall months. In contrast, the leaves produce most of their growth during the summer months (although the leaves may be initiated much earlier in the season - in spring and even winter).

   By all accounts, this is an adaptable and forgiving plant, thriving under conditions of benign neglect. This species tolerates periods of drought, and seems to grow and flower best when the plant's roots are confined. It appears to be resistant to many diseases, and is not generally susceptible to most insect infestations (mealybugs can occasionally be found on these plants, but will seldom infest them in great numbers). In general, it responds well to my general guidelines for growing cactus and other succulents, with a few modifications. Unlike other plants in my collection, this species grows best in bright, but somewhat shaded conditions - it does not grow best in full sun. Also, while this plant is well adapted to periods of drought, it should probably not be subjected to periods of extended drought for best growth, but should be watered somewhat more frequently - especially when the leaves are growing or when the plant is flowering. Because of the slower rate of growth of this plant (only two new leaves per bulb each year), it probably will not require much fertilization, I would recommend making a few light applications of fertilizer beginning when the leaves first emerge, and as the leaves grow; I would discontinue this when the leaves have stopped growing. I try to impose a long winter dormancy with my plants by keeping them dry and cool through the winter months, because I cannot provide adequately bright conditions to sustain healthy growth. If you are able to provide very bright light through the winter, it may be possible to sustain growth through the winter months; if this is possible, you may choose to water you plant more often at this time (perhaps once every 2 weeks). While plants of Haemanthus albiflos can survive considerably cool temperatures, hard frosts and extended freezes will kill them outright.

   Plants are usually propagated from offsets, although it can also be grown from seed harvested from the ripened fruits, but germination can be erratic, and seeds may take at least several months to germinate. Seedlings are also very slow to mature: they may take at least several years to to grow to flowering size, while offsets may flower in their first year. While this is a popular plant in other countries, it does not seem to be as widely known and grown in the United States, and may be a challenge to find from our local suppliers. The Glasshouse Works, and Bob Smoley's Gardenworld, regularly stock this plant, and plants can frequently be purchased from the sales of the Midwest, and Central Ohio Cactus and Succulent Society's plant sales, and may also be available through E-bay.

   Haemanthus albiflos has a broad appeal, it is an easy plant to grow, tolerating a wide range of growing conditions, and having a long flowering season. The compact size of the plants makes them suitable for pot culture - a 6 inch pot will easily accommodate a multi-bulbed plant. The "shaving brush" flowers are both distinctive and attractive, and the evergreen foliage will provide year-round interest. If you have any interest in growing any of the South African bulb plants, this would be a perfect starter plant.

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