Spring has definitely arrived when these lilies start flowering. After being dormant throughout the winter, a green spear emerges from the ground to open into this brilliant flower.

This African lily is part of the Amaryllis family. Commonly known as the Paintbrush Lily, for obvious reasons, it is also referred to as a Snake Lily. Apparently this has something to do with the notion that that purple spots at the base of the flower and leaf stalks may attract snakes. Its botanical name is Scadoxus puniceus.

The flower head is actually a dense cluster of tiny flowers with bright yellow pollen anthers on the stamens. The flower head is surrounded by protective bracts.

Scadoxus puniceus close-up

These low-growing bulbous plants are most commonly found in coastal bush, but they can also grow in scrubbier areas and even in grassland. In South Africa they occur in the more eastern and northern regions, and they also occur in other eastern African countries as far north as Ethiopia, as well as in other areas such as in Botswana. They have become popular garden plants. These plants like to have their roots in leaf litter, as they do in the wild. 

The leaf stems grow directly from the bulbous root, and at least in our garden, the leaves appear after the plant has come into flower. Despite the tuber being poisonous, the plant does play a role in some traditional medicines.

These lilies can be propagated from seed and also by carefully subdividing from the rootstock, but they do not like to have their roots disturbed. This plant in our garden comes from offsets taken from a plant in my parents’ garden many years ago.

Clump of Paintbrush Lilies in garden

Also in our garden, we found a variant version. As this lily is very variable, I am not sure if the plant pictured below is also an S. puniceus or if it is one of the subspecies. If anyone can advise on this, that would be great.


As the season progresses the flower head transforms into a seed head. Initially green, the fruits turn red when mature. If propagating from seed, it is best to remove the fruit pulp first before planting.

Paintbrush Lily seed-head

I have not tried it, but apparently this ornamental plant can also be grown in a pot. I guess that when the plant is dormant during winter, the pot can be tucked away in a suitable and discreet spot, to be brought out to a more prominent place once it starts shooting in the spring. Watching it progress from a tiny green-and-purplery shoot to a brilliant orange flower head is fascinating.

Posted by Carol at letting nature back in