White bloodlily Haemanthus albiflos, copyright Branden Hair.

Belongs within: Amaryllidaceae.

Lilies of blood
Published 14 September 2021

The flora of southern Africa is renowned for being remarkably diverse and, in many cases, remarkably eye-catching. The region is home to more than its fair share of ornamental plants, many of which have become popular garden subjects. Among the remarkable members of the southern African flora are the blood lilies of the genus Haemanthus.

Haemanthus coccineus, copyright Peter Coxhead.

Haemanthus is a genus of 22 known species found in the very southern part of the continent, in the countries of South Africa and Namibia (species from further north that have historically been included in Haemanthus are now treated as a separate genus Scadoxus). It is a member of the belladonna family Amaryllidaceae and, like many other members of that family, grows as a herb from a fleshy bulb that is partially or entirely concealed underground. The plant above ground may be annual or persistent, depending on species. Each individual Haemanthus plant produces very few leaves at a time: two is the most common number (Van Jaarsveld 2020). The leaves are more or less fleshy, often hairy, and may be directed upwards or spread outwards.

In those species that shed their leaves, flower stalks are produced before the next season’s leaves appear, in a similar matter to the related naked ladies Amaryllis belladonna. Flowers are produced in dense umbels, subtended by bracts that are often brightly coloured, so at a glance the inflorescence of some species might be taken for a single large flower up to ten centimetres in diameter. Depending on the species, the supporting stalk may vary from over a foot in height to only a few centimetres. The first species to be described bear flowers of a bright red colour, explaining both the genus and vernacular names, but flowers may also be pale pink or white. Species that lack the red colour may be referred to as ‘paintbrush lilies’ rather than ‘blood lilies’. Fruits are soft fleshy berries.

Haemanthus albiflos, copyright Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz.

Phylogenetic analyses of the genus have identified two major clades, a mostly eastern clade found in regions with summer rainfall and a mostly western clade associated with winter rainfall. A notable outlier is the eastern summer-rainfall species H. montanus which is the sister taxon to the winter rainfall clade. Members of the summer-rainfall clade have white or pale pink flowers; members of the winter-rainfall clade have pale pink to dark red flowers. Members of both clades have been grown as pot plants for their unusual appearance though the scent of the flowers is not regarded as pleasant. Perhaps the most widely grown species is H. albiflos, a species native to both the western and eastern parts of South Africa that bears flowers in umbels up to seven centimetres wide. This species is evergreen, carrying its leaves year-round.

Systematics of Haemanthus
<==Haemanthus Linné 1753 (see below for synonymy)EN20
|--*H. coccineus Linné 1753EN20
|--H. albiflos Jacquin 1797 (see below for synonymy)EN20
|--H. amarylloides [=*Melicho amarylloides]EN20
| |--H. a. ssp. amarylloidesERV99
| `--H. a. ssp. toximontanusERV99
|--H. avasimontanus Dinter 1923 [=H. avasmontanus (l. c.)]EN20
|--H. carneus [=*Serena carnea]EN20
|--H. coarctatus [=*Perihema coarctata]EN20
|--H. deformis Hooker 1871 [incl. H. baurii Baker 1885, H. mackenii Baker 1888]EN20
|--H. humilisERV99
|--H. katherinaeKSM06
|--H. lanceifoliusERV99
|--H. montanusEN20
|--H. pauculifolius Snijman & van Wyk 1993EN20
|--H. pubescens [=*Diacles pubescens, *Leucodesmis pubescens]EN20
| |--H. p. ssp. pubescensERV99
| |--H. p. ssp. arenicolaERV99
| `--H. p. ssp. leipoldtiiERV99
`--H. sanguineusERV99

Haemanthus Linné 1753 [incl. Diacles Salisbury 1866, Leucodesmis Rafinesque 1838, Melicho Salisbury 1866, Perihema Rafinesque 1838, Serena Rafinesque 1838]EN20

Haemanthus albiflos Jacquin 1797 [=H. pubescens var. albiflos (Jacquin) Ker Gawler 1826, H. virescens var. albiflos (Jacquin) Herbert 1837; incl. H. albomaculatus Baker 1878, H. albiflos var. brachyphyllus Baker 1888, H. albiflos var. burchellii Baker 1888, H. ciliaris Salisbury 1866 (nom. inv.) non Linné 1762, H. virescens var. intermedius Herbert 1837, H. intermedius (Herbert) Roemer 1847, H. leucanthus Miquel 1861]EN20

*Type species of generic name indicated


[EN20] Eggli, U., & R. Nyffeler (eds) 2020. Illustrated Handbook of Succulent Plants: Monocotyledons 2nd ed. Springer.

[ERV99] Esler, K. J., P. W. Rundel & P. Vorster. 1999. Biogeography of prostrate-leaved geophytes in semi-arid South Africa: hypotheses on functionality. Plant Ecology 142 (1–2): 105–120.

[KSM06] King, R. C., W. D. Stansfield & P. K. Mulligan. 2006. A Dictionary of Genetics 7th ed. Oxford University Press.

Van Jaarsveld, E. 2020. Haemanthus. In: Eggli, U., & R. Nyffeler (eds) Illustrated Handbook of Succulent Plants: Monocotyledons 2nd ed. pp. 441–443. Springer.

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