Haemanthus albiflos is a geophyte endemic to South Africa, from Cape Province to KwaZulu-Natal. There, it can be found in shaded forests and rocky coastal areas, tucked into cliff faces, and in mountainous areas further inland. Haemanthus albiflos is commonly known as paintbrush plant, shaving-brush plant, elephant’s ear and elephant’s tongue.
Each plant stems from a large egg-shaped bulb half-hidden underground (see Bruce’s other photos of Haemanthus albiflos for an example). In the Illustrated Handbook of Succulent Plants: Monocotyledons, edited by Urs Eggli (Springer, 2001), it is stated that the bulbs both tend to form clusters and are lime green in colour where they have been exposed to sunlight. Each year, the plant produces a single pair of smooth to lightly fuzzy strap-shaped leaves; at any given time, an elephant’s tongue may have up to three sets of leaves present. The feathery paintbrush-like flowers bloom in tightly packed umbels from April to July, with each cream-coloured umbel held in a large, pale green bract. Once the flowers fade, they are replaced by fleshy, scarlet-orange oval fruits with a musty fragrance. When fully grown, Haemanthus albiflos is approximately 20-30 cm tall and 15 cm wide. It reproduces both by seed and adventitious buds.
Elephant’s tongue is a popular indoor plant outside of its native range, and has won an RHS Award of Garden Merit thanks in part to its grey-blue succulent leaves, whimsical flowers, and ability to flourish on little water. It is said to flower best if kept in a small pot out of direct sunlight.
Haemanthus albiflos is traditionally used to treat chronic coughs. Also, in traditional veterinary medicine of its native area, the mashed bulb is applied to broken limbs in order to aid in healing. Furthermore, recent studies have shown that parts of the plant possess antiviral properties, as alkaloids found in the bulb inhibit RNA synthesis for rotavirus, and extracts of the leaves decrease the impact of herpes simplex virus type 1 (a DNA virus), as well as poliovirus type 1, simian rotavirus SA11, and vesicular stomatitis virus (all RNA viruses) (see: Husson GP et al. 1991. Antiviral effect of Haemanthus albiflos leaves extract on herpes virus, adenovirus, vesicular stomatitis virus, rotavirus and poliovirus in Ann Pharm Fr. 49(1):40-8 and Husson GP et al. 1994. Study of antiviral action of total alkaloids from Haemanthus albiflos. Ann Pharm Fr. 52(6):311-22).