A Gardening Journal

The Best Season Ever: White Paintbrush

The tightly packed flowers of white paintbrush create real suspense as they mature. The ring of broad papery bracts, each filigreed with green veins, will be just barely able to restrain the emerging show.

 

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The large yellow anthers emerge from the flowers all together, like a troup of meticulously-trained Busby Berkeley chorines coming into view.

 

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Fully extended, the anthers look like a joyous crowd scene in miniature, with everyone's yellow-mittened hands high overhead.

 

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The flower stalks—scapes is the technical word—emerge at the side of that season's pair of leathery tongue-shaped leaves. 

 

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The scapes are thick enough and long enough to maneuver the showy flower heads free of the heavy overlapping leaves. Their sideways-and-then-upwards pathway means that the scapes always have a pronounced lean. A mature colony of white paintbrush can have many scapes at once; because each has found its own way through the foliage, there's none of the tidy look of marshalled vertical stems, as with a stand of tulips or alliums.

 

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At any angle, the flowers of Haemanthus albiflos combine with the species' durable foliage to create a show that is distinctive the whole year.

 

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Here's how to grow this easy tropical perennial:

 

Latin Name

Haemanthus albiflos; also known as Scadoxus albiflos.  "Haemanthus" means "blood flower;" the flowers of most forms in the genus are a rich red (or pink). "Albiflos" means "white flower."  

Common Name

White paintbrush

Family

Amaryllidaceae, the Amaryllis family.

What kind of plant is it?

Tender evergreen bulbous perennial.

Hardiness

Zones 9a to 11.  

Habit

Dense and colony-forming, with offset bulbs emerging alongside the mother. Thick, paired leaves lie fairly flat, and are numerous, overlapping, and present year-round. In mild climates, Haemanthus albiflos can be used as a small-scale groundcover.

Rate of Growth

Medium to slow.

Size in ten years

Even in ideal circumstances, Haemanthus albiflos takes its time: The yearly progress for an established bulb would be a single new pair of leaves, perhaps an offset or two, and a scape of flowers. In a decade, a small starter plant could burgeon into a colony that finally needs repotting into a larger azalea pot. (Azalea pot?  See "How to handle it: Another option—or two!," below.) Although white paintbrush can function as a groundcover, you'd need to be patient. See "How to handle it," below.

Texture

Dense and, when out of flower, heavy. The leaves are leathery and held low to the ground. Combine this foliar look and habit with the species' tendency to form daughter bulbs that tightly abut the mother, and you have growth that's thick enough to crowd out most weeds. The exuberant "Hey, look at me!" clusters of flowers, are a bouncy contrast.

Grown for

its flowers: Individually, the white-petaled florets are narrow, with erect stamens that protrude conspicuously. When their anthers are ripe with yellow pollen, the appeal to bees and butterflies couldn't be stronger. Even better, the flowers are held in a tight umbel, ringed by elegantly-odd white bracts that have showy green veins. En masse, the display of yellow anthers is truly exuberant. Perched as the umbel is at the tip of the thick scape, the overall resemblance to a painbrush is uncanny. The umbel of florets matures to a cluster of a few showy red fruits, each the size of a very small crab apple. The display is lovely, but secondary to that of the flowers.

 

its ease of handling: H. albiflos is the easiest of all forms of Haemanthus to establish and to bring into flower regularly.

 

its evergreen foliage: The great majority of the species of Haemanthus are deciduous, and with a dormant season of several months. Only two other species are evergreen: H. deformis and H. pauculifolius. While the lengthy dormant season only increases the welcome surprise of the quick emergence of the flowers at the end of it, it also means months of bare dirt or, at best, emerging weeds. Growth of H. albiflos is present and in good shape year-round, and is dense enough to work as a groundcover.   

Flowering season

In Nature, Haemanthus albiflos flowers in Fall or Winter; in cultivation (either in-ground or in containers), the species can flower at almost any time, even several times a year. A period of Winter dormancy (see, below, "How to handle it: Another option—or two!") helps a container-grown colony maintain a more regular yearly cycle, whereas more consistent heat, light, and watering year-round is likely to encourage more frequent but also more irregular flowering.

Color combinations

Although the leaves themselves are a neutral slate-green, the tight clusters of florets, with their white-and-green bracts and marvelous "brush" of innumerable yellow anthers, claims this plant for color schemes that are limited to green, white, and yellow. Although it's comparatively easy to create ever-floriferous and wildly colorful plantings in the frost-free climates Haemanthus albiflos requires, the species' extraordinary flowers are worth honoring by restraint. See "Plant partners," below, for suggestions that are deferential without being boring.

Plant partners

The wide leathery leaves of Haemanthus albiflos synergize with its short stature, dense and slow-spreading habit, and tolerance of shade to make this subtropical perennial one of the world's great accompaniments to upright plants that grow as singletons instead of colonies. (Any forms of these "uprights" that spread by rhizomes would infiltrate and gradually overwhelm the Haemanthus.) Ferns would usually provide the strongest contrast in texture, while sharing a fondness for dappled shade. Tree-ferns have species in the Blechnum, Cibotium, Cyathea, and Dicksonia genera, and are the champs at not forming colonies, either by offsets or rhizomes; they should be among your first choices. If you grow your Haemanthus in a pot, you could safely set it near a stand or specimen of just about any other fern whenever the weather permits.

 

Clumping bamboos and rushes are another possibility. Next Summer, I might set my Haemanthus pot in the shade of one of my tubs of South African restios.In the link, I feature one with startling narrow and leafless canes, but the other, Elegia capensis, looks like a scouring rush that has decided to grow the most luxurious and ferny thread-like foliage. A tub of Mexican weeping bamboo, Otatea acuminata, would bring similar feathery texture and casual vertical grace.

Where to use it in your garden

In the frost-free habitat where it can be grown outdoors, site Haemanthus albiflos to take advantage of its quirky cultural preferences as well as its aesthetics. For once, deep soil isn't necessary: Haemanthus sends its roots outward, not downward. And it flowers even better when growing in tight colonies without "uncolonized" soil in the vicinity, either underneath the root mass of the colony or around it. This preference for restricted root room, plus the species' shade tolerance, suggest that white paintbrush could be a small-scale accent at the base of shade-casting trees growing in small and already-cramped circumstances, such as street trees planted between the sidewalk and the street, or in too-small planting islands at malls or in parking lots. Being planted in a small bed that is surrounded by (nicely-shaded, and therefore cool) masonry can also be a help to keeping the colony free of slugs, which enjoy chewing on the foliage.

 

Haemanthus albiflos is shade tolerant, but just how much? One source advises that this species needs more light than Clivia, which is renowned for thriving without direct sun. Site Haemanthus where it will receive direct sun only in early morning, or dappled shade all day.

 

Haemanthus albiflos is tender to frost, and thrives for the long-term in containers, set a pot of it near neighbors that can provide maximal textural contrast, without having to worry that, if they were growing in-ground, the two would intermingle disasterously. See "Plant partners," above, for suggestions.

Culture

Haemanthus albiflos can be found in Nature thriving in just about any soil, and any exposure from full sun to deep shade, in cultivation the foliage remains its best green color when the plants are growing with dappled shade all day, or full shade from mid-day through evening. With too much sun, the leaves can bleach, although the health and floriferousness of the colony doesn't seem to suffer. Plant in almost any average-to-good soil that has decent drainage.

How to handle it: The Basics.

For those lucky enough to garden where Haemanthus albiflos is hardy in-ground, plant in late Winter or Spring. Although Haemanthus is native to habitat that receives the majority of its rain in Summer, with Winters being both cooler and drier, the species is flexible in cultivation. It doesn't require a drier Winter dormancy to complete its yearly growth cycle, for example, and it tolerates some drought in Summer. Its preferred shady sites are, no doubt, one reason the plant's thick leaves and and exposed bulbs don't dessicate.

 

Plants offset readily to form dense groundcovering clumps. To use white paintbrush as an actual groundcover, however, would require a lot of plants. Set them out as closely as you can afford to: Six inches? Three inches? Abutting? Only your wallet will tell you the spacing.

 

Plantings can be left alone for years; colonies that have filled as large a container as you'd like might not need division and replanting more often than every seven or eight years. Colonies growing in-ground can grow on their own for even longer. Dig up in early Spring, gently pull the bulbs apart, and reset in fresh soil only when flowering seems to be decreasing.

How to handle: Another option—or two!

Haemanthus albiflos is easy in a container. As when growing this species in-ground, depth of soil (and, hence, the deepness of the container) isn't necessary. Instead, focus on providing width to the colony, which will permit more and more offsets and, so, more stalks of flowers at once.

 

Plant in a pot that's shallow but wide, such as one for growing florist's azaleas. (Indeed, the pots themselves are known as azalea pots.) In your eagerness to grow a large colony, remember that Haemanthus neither needs nor appreciates spacious surroundings or root disturbance. (This is a case of "Do as I say, not as I've done:" My colony is stuck in a one-gallon plastic nursery pot. This year, I'll do better by it, graduating it to a terra cotta azalea pot.) Plant several young plants in a given size of azalea pot, not just one in the center, and let them fill in over the years, with the offsets eventually growing cheek-by-jowl across the entire surface. Or start with a single plant in a smaller container, potting up every other year as it develops into a colony.

 

Water as needed Spring through Fall, fertilizing monthly. Reduce watering during the shorter days of Winter, when the colony will usually be resting. Although Haemanthus tolerates some frost, it will damage the leaves, so it's better to keep the colony frost-free. Because the plant is dormant (but still evergreen) in Winter, it's an easy keeper at a time when available space can be crowded: The pot can be surrounded by taller plants that are hungry for all available light, or set atop the soil of larger plants, in their shade, to save more space.

Quirks and special cases

Each bulb usually maintains just four leaves at a time: The pair that is growing in the current year, and the pair that grew the year before. Older leaves will usually turn brown, and can be pulled free of (or cut away from) the colony at any time.

Downsides

When growing Haemanthus albiflos in-ground, slugs can be a problem. Pick them off by hand, and mulch around the colony with sand or gravel that is sharp-edged and pointy, not smooth or rounded.   

Variants

To my knowledge, there are no named forms of Haemanthus albiflos. There are a couple of dozen species in the Haemanthus genus itself, including those that have recently been separated into the new Scadoxus genus. (Haemanthus albiflos is, apparently, in the early phase of "nomial transition," and is listed only rarely as Scadoxus albiflos.

 

As is often the case with plants native to South Africa—an unusually benign and diverse habitat, welcoming wide evolutionary radiation—the species of Haemanthus and Scadoxus are also diverse, indeed. They assort into two groups, one preferring climates with Winter rain and Summer drought, and the other, the reverse. (South Africa being South Africa, of course there are both types of climates.) Summer-drought species tend to be deciduous in Summer, with their bulbs completely underground. Winter-drought species are more likely to be evergreen, with their bulbs partially exposed. Although evergreen, Haemanthus albiflos is unusually flexible, and is found in habitats of both climates.

 

Different species favor specific topography and soil, as well, from coastal dunes to mountain tops, rocky cliffs to vernal gravel banks. Here, too, Haemanthus albiflos is uniquely intrepid in the genus, thriving in deep shade on forest floors, in colonies in full sun on rocky cliffs, and in coastal spots exposed to salt spray.

 

Flower colors of Haemanthus range from fiery orange-red to pink to white. Despite the number of species—many of which have great variety in leaf size, shape, and coloring, as well as in shades of their flowers—there are no Haemanthus currently known that have flowers that are yellow, let alone blue. Forms that are deciduous tend to flower before new leaves emerge at the beginning of their rainy growing season; evergreen forms tend to flower towards the end of their growing season. Flowers and leaves of of H. canaliculatus might not appear for many years, but then, only days after surrounding growth has been cleared (either by being cut away or by brush fires), the flower stalks will have shot up, with flowers opening fully shortly thereafter. The entire interval—from first emergence of the stalk to full maturity of the flowers—could take as little as a week.

Availability

On-line. Possibly also at "destination" retailers where hardy: Coastal California from the Bay south and, in eastern North America, in the frost-free swath bordering the Gulf Coast and in southern Florida.

Propagation

By division and by seed.  

Native habitat

Haemanthus albiflos is native to southern Africa.

 
 
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