How to spot an April Fool

February and March are the months for April Fools at Phillipskop. Or to be more helpful, they are the months when two different species, Haemanthus coccineus and Haemanthus sanguineus, come into flower. Both are commonly known as April Fools, though the name is not especially apt as they are frequently found in flower much earlier in the year. Indeed, at Phillipskop anyone looking for the flowers in April would indeed be a fool. Some of the other common names, e.g. Blood Lily or Paintbrush Lily, are much more descriptive and helpful but both can be applied to a variety of similar looking species.

Haemanthus coccineus (Amaryllidaceae)
Haemanthus coccineus
Haemanthus sanguineus (Amaryllidaceae) with dried leaves
Haemanthus sanguineus with dried leaves pressed to the ground

Haemanthus coccineus and Haemanthus sanguineus belong to the Amaryllis family, Amaryllidaceae, which accounts for a number of autumn-flowering Cape bulbs. The bulbs of both species are particularly large and each year they produce two broad oval leaves soon after the flowers have withered. The two species are often confused but they are generally easy to tell apart. The biggest difference is in their leaves. Haemanthus coccineus produces long broad strap shaped leaves that are held rather erect. Haemanthus sanguineus, however, produces two rounded leaves about as wide as long, which are held flat against the ground. Unfortunately, when in flower, the leaves have long since withered and only occasionally can their nature be determined. Then one needs to look at the flowers. Both are bright red paintbrushes; i.e. numerous narrowly 6-petalled flowers packed together between the upward pointing bracts, with stamens and style sticking out beyond the petals. In Haemanthus coccineus, the bracts surrounding the flowers are bright red, thick, broad and overlapping. In Haemanthus sanguineus, the bracts are generally thinner and are not so pronounced or brightly coloured, often fading towards the top. The best difference though is the stems, which in Haemanthus coccineus are covered in brown spots, particularly noticeable as they emerge from the ground. In Haemanthus sanguineus, the stems are unspotted, a uniform pink to dark red in colour.

Haemanthus coccineus (Amaryllidaceae) spotted stem
Haemanthus coccineus young flower with clearly spotted stem
Haemanthus sanguineus (Amaryllidaceae) stem
Haemanthus sanguineus stem without any signs of spots

Both species are widespread in the Cape Floral Kingdom from Vanrhynsdorp to Port Elizabeth. Haemanthus coccineus also extends its range as far southern Namibia and the Eastern Cape beyond PE. Being so widespread it is not surprising that many different forms are found, but the characters for distinguishing them given above generally hold true. At Phillipskop, Haemanthus sanguineus is found in the rocky shale soils amongst the fynbos, often overshadowed by proteas and only flowering after a fire. It is usually found as solitary plants. Haemanthus coccineus is found in more scrubby ground beside streams and has more consistent flowering even when shaded. The bulbs produce quite dense clumps in leaf, though not all the bulbs flower every year. Both produce bright pink fleshy seeds after flowering which are about as ornamental as the flowers. Plants grow easily from these seeds if planted immediately, but it will be several years before the bulbs are big enough to flower.

Haemanthus coccineus (Amaryllidaceae) leaves
Haemanthus coccineus leaves
Haemanthus coccineus (Amaryllidaceae) bulb
Haemanthus coccineus bulb
Haemanthus sanguineus (Amaryllidaceae) fruit seeds
Haemanthus sanguineus berries

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