An African far from home

I have never been able to understand why more people don’t keep houseplants. They purify and detoxify air, they oxygenate, they recycle carbon dioxide, they humidify, they eliminate odours and exude fragrance, and they bring beauty, charm, style, interest, character and exotic life to even the humblest abode. It’s not as if they’re particularly expensive to buy or maintain, compared to the price of the quickly obsolescent and invariably inessential consumerist crap that clutters most homes, and often they cost next to nothing if bought as babies in a small pot or started from a cutting, an offset, a division or a seed. And, best of all, they’re intelligent, sophisticated companions who don’t answer back!

Over the years I’ve co-habited with numerous different plants. Some didn’t live very long, mainly due to neglect or incorrect upkeep or poor choice of plant or simply their natural transience. Others lasted for decades. I still miss the Dragon Tree (Dracaena marginata) I acquired in London in the 1970s as a tiny shoot with a couple of frail leaves. Wherever I went it came with me, getting ever bigger and requiring repeated repotting until it was a 3m (10ft) high, many branched, brobdingnagian beast that reached the ceiling, weighed a ton and could only be relocated by hiring a transit van. It moved to Cymru when I returned in the late 1980s, but five years ago I reluctantly parted with it because it was simply too huge for a Cardiff terraced house. With the utmost difficulty I transported it to an old acquaintance with a large conservatory in western Wales, and there it resides to this day – gnarled, twisted and always thirsty. A bit like him, come to think of it!

In return, my butty gave me the offspring of one of the many fascinating tender plants he grows in his greenhouse: a stumpy, stout thing with a tangle of thick, overlapping, tongue-like leaves that he knew as a ‘blood lily’. I took it home and discovered it was a member of the Haemanthus genus – although I couldn’t be sure which of the 50 possible species it was until a year or so had passed and it had flowered. It didn’t shed its leaves, which narrowed the possibilities since there are only three evergreens in the genus, and when it eventually produced a flower (after I had repotted it into a bigger container, found a warm but partially shaded spot for it on a wide windowsill and got into the habit of keeping it moist but never saturated), it became clear that this was Haemanthus albiflos, commonly called the paintbrush or shaving-brush lily. A long, velvet-smooth, milk-white stalk suddenly emerged from within the tangle of fleshy, dark green leaves, bearing a cradle of brilliant white petals containing a multitude of delicate white filaments each topped by a tiny orange anther. And yes, at a push, it does bear a passing resemblance to a paintbrush or a shaving-brush.

As the plant got accustomed to its habitat and I got accustomed to treating it how it likes to be treated (don’t disturb the roots or bulb, give it a weak feed now and then in the summer, don’t let it get either too hot or too cold), its autumn flowering has become more and more spectacular. This is what it looks like at the moment:

By winter, all being well, it should produce some of its vivid red, oval fruits. They are not edible for humans but contain seeds that can be sown to produce new plants – although propagation by planting small offsets is much quicker.

I wonder what this native of the hot, sandy coasts and rocky, cool mountains of southern Africa thinks about being plonked on a shelf in the grimy bowels of dismal, dirty Cardiff. Is there a genetic memory deep within its scaly, fat bulb it can draw on for comfort when another grey day dawns? Haemanthus bulbs were among the very first botanical specimens from the Cape Peninsula to be collected and transported to Europe by Dutch seafarers in the 17th century. In 1753 the genus was classified and given its name (derived from the Greek haima meaning blood and anthos meaning flower – the earliest species found had red flowers) by the father of biological taxonomy Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). In South Africa all the varieties can be seen growing wild outdoors in environments from arid cliffs to humid forests, whereas in Cymru none would survive life outside – although I do give mine the pleasure of sunbathing for a few hours in my south-facing back garden on hot summer afternoons. I know that the plant very much appreciates this treat. How do I know that? Well, she told me so…

Pictures: Dic Mortimer