Painting the Shade White – with White Paintbrushes

Haemanthus albiflos
Photo: Margaret Richards

Contributor: Leonie Twentyman Jones

Ever since I encountered this striking evergreen plant with dark leaves and contrasting white flower-heads full of yellow stamens some years ago, I had been hoping to acquire a few. Eventually last November a kind and generous friend shared several plants with us, and we planted them in a shady spot near some clivias. Although they prefer not to be moved, they settled in well and now only six months later almost every plant has a flower.

Its botanical name is Haemanthus albiflos, whereas not surprisingly the common name is the descriptive ‘White paintbrush’ or ‘Shaving brush flower’. Most of the Haemanthus species have red or pink flowers, hence haima meaning blood in Greek, and anthos, meaning flower. As this species has white flowers, it has the added Latin description of albiflos (white flower).

The spectacular Haemanthus bulbs were among the first plants to be gathered at the Cape and cultivated in the gardens of Europe. The earliest known description plus drawing of the scarlet Hermanthus coccineus was published by the Flemish botanist Mathias de l’Obel in 1605. Apparently bulbs had been collected on Table Mountain in 1603 for a wealthy German merchant and plant lover and then distributed to the Netherlands. De l’Obel reported that ‘this plant of rarest elegance…’ was growing in a garden in Middelburg, Zeeland.

Watercolour from Curtis’ Bot Mag.

Hermanthus albiflos was first described and illustrated by Nikolaus von Jacquin, nearly two centuries later, in 1797, from specimens growing in the Imperial Gardens of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. Two Viennese gardeners, Franz Boos and Georg Scholl, had been sent out to the Cape in the 1780s and were able to travel further afield in search of interesting local plants.

However it was only in 1810 that the plant was featured in the world-renowned Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, with the comment ‘…introduced into this country from the Cape of Good Hope by Messrs Lee and Kennedy of Hammersmith.’ The Lee and Kennedy Vineyard Nursery was regarded as the top nursery in England at the time, specialising in collecting new and interesting plants from all over the world. They had sent out a young plant collector, James Niven, (who was also collecting plants for the Empress Josephine’s Chateau de Malmaison gardens in Paris), to the Cape in 1805 to gather seeds and bulbs. He travelled along the Garden Route as far as the Gamtoos River near Port Elizabeth. So this was no doubt where Niven found the beautiful White Paintbrush growing amongst the coastal forests or thickets.

The species flowers all winter long and then produces bright orange berries – a most welcome feature for the winter garden. It is also very easy to grow, either in the ground or in containers on a shady verandah or indoors where it receives dappled light. It prefers well aerated soil with well-rotted compost. Propagation is by seed or by separation of offsets from thick clumps in early spring.  The White Paintbrush is a hardy and rewarding plant but can be attacked by the dreaded lily borer or amaryllis caterpillar during the hot summer months. Keep a watch out in the same way as you do for your clivias and remove any affected leaves as soon as possible, and you will experience many years of enjoyment from this attractive plant.

Leonie Twentyman Jones