The only winter deciduous tree native to Australia is Tasmania’s celebrated myrtle beech (Nothofagus gunnii) (although tropical Australia has many dry-season deciduous trees, including various eucalypts and the baobab). Nevertheless autumn is still defined for many Australians by the spectacular colour of winter deciduous trees and leaf fall characteristic of largely European and North American immigrants. Spring bulbs such as daffodils and jonquils reinforce our perspective of the proper order of the seasons. Of course, the proper order of the seasons depends on where we are and how we relate to and understand our environment. For example, the Classical Four Seasons inherited from Ancient Greece reflect an agrarian society in the Mediterranean while Aboriginal seasonal calendars, such as that of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains, might define six seasons reflecting weather patterns, availability of water and differing food sources and the behaviour of fire.
There’s some botanical irony in one of my favourite signifiers of autumn being the flowering of the paintbrush lily – Haemanthus coccineus – variously known as paintbrush lily, blood lily, ox tongue and Cape tulip (all of which also apply to various other South African bulbs reinforcing the value of the scientific name as a linguafranca). The powerful flower stems to 30cm high and the spectacular red to orange paintbrush flowers 10cm in diameter appear out of bare earth from a massive bulb and are followed in due course by two shiny, almost succulent bottle-green opposite leaves exuded from the base for up to a meter in length and 20cm in width. The paintbrush lily is a beauty in its own right and it also demonstrates
a sound strategy to deal with a climate with hot dry summers and relatively mild winters – avoid summer! Summer dormant bulbs such as the paintbrush lily and many of its relatives flower paintbrush lily and many of its relatives flower in autumn and lose their leaves in spring – the opposite of the behaviour exhibited in Classical Autumn by deciduous trees and spring bulbs, and well-suited for much of southern Australia’s climate.
The paintbrush lily is widespread through the Cape and was one of the first recorded Cape bulbs to reach Europe. Gouarus de Keyser collected bulbs on Table Mountain at Cape Town in 1602 and the first image was published by Mathias de l’Obel (for whom Lobelia was named) in 1605. Four centuries later discoveries continue to be made. The riches of South Africa’s Cape floral kingdom are legendary – like the south-west of Western Australia the flora has all of the diversity, colour and exuberance of a coral reef (the pollinators, especially sunbirds in the Cape and honeyeaters in Western Australia, provide more than adequate compensation for coral reef fish). South Africa’s bulb flora is astonishing. Over 1400 species of bulbs occur in the Cape botanical province – an astonishing 600 species occur around the so-called bulb capital of the world, Nieuwoudtville on the Bokkeveld escarpment of Namaqualand in the Northern Cape.
While the paintbrush lily is a joy (and largely indestructible in Adelaide) there are a range of other marvellous lilies in the Amaryllidaceae (Haemanthus’s family), that deserve attention. Bulbs of the Cape can reasonably become a patient obsession (from seed a decade may pass before flowering).
The candelabra lilies (Brunsvigia species) provide one window into the richness of these autumn flowering bulbs – the flowers are arranged on an umbel – reminiscent of a dandelion in seed on a massive scale. Josephine’s candelabra lily (Runsvigia josephinae – named for Empress Josephine) has the largest candelabra flowers with flower stems up to 1.5 metres high and umbels of scarlet flowers with a radius 50cm or more. Scented candelabra (Brunsvegia bosmaniae) flowers form carpets on apparently desolate plains – tens of thousands of leafless flower stems surmounted by an umbel 3cm in diameter with dozens of soft pink flowers finishing each arm. Brunsvigia grandiflora is another spectacular candelabra that flourishes in KwaZulu-Natal grasslands. A distinctive close relative with leaves arranged in a fan is Boophone disticha – variously assigned by botanists to both Haemanthus and Brunsvigia and even Amaryllis since collected in 178. The etymology for Boophone deriving from the Greek for ox killer – an accurate description of its poisonous bulb and providing ‘oxbane’ as a seldom used common name.
The diversity of South Africa’s bulb flora is bewildering – choose garden subjects with care – many South African bulbs have become weeds (such as Oxalisl). However, the autumn flowering Haemanthus, Brunsvigia and Boophone seem unenthusiastic about leaving gardens. A good place to start reading would be with any of Peter Goldblatt, John Manning and Dee Snijman’s books – Colin Paterson-Jones’ photographs for South African bulbs are exceptional (see colinpatersonjones.co.za) – Colin’s death in 2013 was a loss for many and especially his wife Cape bulb botanist Dee Snijman. The Pacific Bulb Society’s website is worth visiting (pacificbulbsociety.org) or better still go along to the South Australian Li Hum and Bulb Society to find out who’s growing what, what might suit you and where you may be able to find seed or bulbs qiliumbulb.org.au). They meet on the first Wednesday of each month (apart from July) at the Crafers Institute. Wittunga Botanic Garden on Shepherds Hill Road at Blackwood has a still fine, if rather diminished from its heyday, collection and display of South African bulbs.
Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 1 April 2014.