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The spectacular flowers of the paintbrush lily will have your friends and family reaching for their cameras!

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Scadoxus puniceus. Picture courtesy www.newplant.co.zaScadoxus puniceus. Picture courtesy www.newplant.co.zaThe spectacular paintbrush lily is a member of the Amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae) and one of South Africa's most striking bulbous plants with its large, glossy green tropical leaves, brilliant bright-red paintbrushes and fat red fruits.  The name Scadoxus is derived from "doxus" meaning glory or splendour, and ‘’punicues’’ meaning crimson, scarlet or purple. The 9 species are found in tropical Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where they can be found growing wild in tropical woodlands. Three species: S. puniceus, S. multiflorus and S. membranaceus occur in South Africa. Scadoxus was formerly classified as Haemanthus to which it is closely related, but was separated in order to distinguish those plants with elongated stems (Scadoxus) from those with broad, stemless leaves (Haemanthus).

Scadoxus species are usually available at specialist indigenous nurseries or at your local National Botanical Garden. Because many of these plants are indiscriminately removed from the wild and sold when they are in flower, be sure not to purchase them alongside the road or from sellers who cannot assure you of the plant's origin.

Scadoxus puniceus is the most well-known of the species and can be found growing naturally in shady areas in ravines and forests as well as in coastal bush. Occurring from tropical Africa into the Northern provinces of South Africa and Swaziland, Gauteng, the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and the eastern and southern Cape, this summer growing species can be found growing in both shade and full sun and is completely dormant during the winter months. It is quite variable, with a number of different forms occurring throughout its distribution range. Flowering times also vary; in the northern and eastern parts of the country blooms will appear in spring or early summer, just as the new leaves start to develop, whereas those from the southern parts can expect flowers towards the end of the growth cycle in early autumn. Each bulb produces a single flower stalk which may reach 50cm to 1m tall, and is often speckled with reddish-purple near the base. The large dense flowering head, up to 15cm across, consists of hundreds of tiny, densely-packed flowers with bright yellow anthers, snuggled within red bracts. Six to eight leaf stems are produced and are held erect by clasping together at the base of the plant to form a pseudo stem (false stem). The tropical glossy leaves remain attractive during the growing season until it gets cold. Shiny, fleshy, orange-red berries follow the flowers and are relished by birds and monkeys. The large underground bulbs may be up to 10cm across and have a short thick stem at the base from which numerous fleshy roots arise. The plants use their bulbs and roots to store moisture during their dormant season.

Scadoxus multiflorus is a deciduous summer growing species that consists of three subspecies, namely, multiflorus, katharinae, and longitubus. It is found predominantly in all but the very driest regions of tropical Africa, but has a wide distribution and varying habitats. Its range includes Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana; all four Northern provinces of South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. It grows abundantly in shady, moist coastal and swamp forests to mountain forests, secondary forests and forest margins, savannah woodland and open grasslands. It is also very common in the shade of trees near river banks.

Scadoxus multiflorus subsp. Katharinae  is robust evergreen, with a very short to no dormancy period in cultivation. It is arguably the most spectacular of the genus and commemorates the English botanical artist and plant collector Katherine Sunders, who arrived in Natal in the mid 1850’s. It remains the most commonly and easily grown Scadoxus which tolerates even heavy shade and multiplies rather rapidly by rhizomes. The pseudostem is sturdy and is usually spotted with purple but can be plain and almost white. The leaves can stand up to 70cm high and the flower stems are produced in late summer to early autumn (December to March) when the plant is in full leaf, and a single flower-head can reach a diameter of 25cm and a height of 110cm, which is nearly waist height! Each flower is pinkish-orange-red with protruding stamens carrying bright yellow anthers. The green berries turn scarlet as they ripen during winter and spring, and these decorative berries can remain on the plant for up to 2 months.

Scadoxus membranaceus is one of the smaller species of Scadoxus and lacks a pseudostem. It is evergreen and grows wild in the coastal sand dunes of the South-Eastern Cape to KwaZulu-Natal in the north. It can also be found growing on rocks as a lithophyte, where there is sufficient accumulated material to form an open rooting medium. It is a very variable plant, attaining heights from 15 to 40cm and grows best in deep shade. The bright orange flowers are enclosed by four conspicuous greenish-brown bracts followed by the fat, bright red berries. This species is an ideal pot plant.

Scadoxus puniceus. Picture courtesy www.newplant.co.zaScadoxus puniceus. Picture courtesy www.newplant.co.zaScadoxus puniceus. Picture courtesy www.newplant.co.zaUses:

The large flower clusters of the paintbrush lily are a butterfly and bird magnet and make excellent cut flowers. Although this bulb is very poisonous, it is widely used in traditional medicine to treat coughs and gastro-intestinal problems. It has also traditionally been used as part of a medicine taken regularly during pregnancy to ensure a safe delivery.

In the Garden:

The paintbrush lily has been in cultivation in Holland since the early 18th century and remains a popular ornamental garden subject in warmer climates around the world, not only for its brilliantly coloured flowers, but also for its attractive tropical foliage. Because it is an excellent candidate for container planting, in colder climates it can still be grown successfully, even indoors. It thrives in the filtered light in woodland gardens and shady rockeries; and is  perfect to plant amongst grasses and essential for all wild, butterfly and bird gardens. Sunbirds, weavers and other birds relish the nectar, as do a myriad of insects, which in turn attract insect eating birds to the plants.

Scadoxus multiflorus Katharinae. Picture courtesy www.newplant.co.zaScadoxus multiflorus Katharinae. Picture courtesy www.newplant.co.zaScadoxus multiflorus Katharinae. Picture courtesy www.newplant.co.zaCultivation:

The paintbrush lily is tender to frost and does not enjoy very low temperatures. Plants may be grown directly in the ground in frost-free regions, but in cold regions the bulbs are planted directly in the garden in spring after the last frost date, and lifted prior to first frost in winter. Over-winter the bulbs by placing them in in cardboard boxes and covering them with peat or vermiculite, before storing in a dry cool area. Alternatively, the bulbs can be planted into containers which can be moved in winter. Reduce watering in late summer and bring the containers indoors or move them to a spot for overwintering where it is cool and dry.

Regardless of climate, the paintbrush lily is an excellent candidate for container planting because the plants perform best when root-bound and generally dislike root disturbance. They also don't need huge pots to grow and bloom well. When you really do need to re-pot, do so when they are dormant, or for the evergreens, just before new growth begins in spring.  Whether you are planting in containers or in the ground, the paintbrush lily requires organically rich, well-drained soils. Position the plants where they receive semi-shade or even full shade, and plant the rootstock just below the ground. Provide consistent and even moisture during the growing season, but keep reasonably dry in winter. In winter rainfall areas the plant has no trouble surviving the wet winters, provided it is in a well-drained position. The plants benefit greatly from regular liquid feeding during their growing season, and to keep them looking neat, remove the spent flowers unless you are collecting the seed.

If you are growing your bulbs indoors, place the pot in bright, filtered light but no direct sunlight.    Water freely when in growth and apply a dilute, balanced liquid houseplant fertiliser each month during the growing season.


Most species can be grown easily from fresh seed without a lot of trouble but will take about 4 years to flower. Collect seeds when they have turned red and fall easily into your hand when touched. Remove the fleshy coating before sowing on the surface of a moistened potting soil mix. Fresh seeds will germinate fairly quickly but will not produce leaves right away. Instead, all of the energy will be put into producing a small ‘bulblet’ which will sit dormant for a few months before any leaves emerge. During this time, keep the medium somewhat moist but soggy.

Pests & Diseases:

Scadoxus are relatively healthy plants but watch out for the Amaryllis lily borer which can cause severe damage to the whole plant. Slugs and snails can also damage the foliage extensively.


As within many of the closely related amaryllids, this bulb contains poisonous alkaloids and deaths have been reported following the ingestion of the bulb.


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