Haemanthus albiflos, commonly known as Paint Brush, is an evergreen to semi-evergreen, bulbous plant native to South Africa. With its handsome leaves, long flowering season, and red berries, it is an excellent choice for shady spots in the garden.
The leaves are quite variable, from pale to dark to grey-green. They may be covered with short, soft hairs or smooth and shiny or may have yellowish spots on the upper surface. In the wild, it flowers in fall and winter but may flower at any time of the year in cultivation. The fruits are in the form of a large berry and ripen to an eye-catching bright orange or red, attractive to birds. The upper half of the bulb is usually exposed above ground and is bright green.
Paint Brush has a wide, mainly coastal distribution stretching from the southern Cape through many parts of the Eastern Cape, right up to the northern parts of KwaZulu-Natal.
This plant is reported to be used in traditional medicine to treat chronic coughs and as a charm to ward off lightning.
Growing Conditions and General Care
Paint Brush is an ideal plant for a shady rock garden or for difficult parts of the garden receiving poor light, where it can be left to multiply for many years.
It is one of the easiest of all the Haemanthus species to grow. It requires a dappled shade position and likes to remain undisturbed for many years once established. The soil must be well aerated. A suggested medium is equal parts of well-rotted compost, coarse river sand, and loam. Plant the greenish bulbs with the upper half exposed, and the thick fleshy roots spread out horizontally over the soil.
It also makes an excellent subject for plastic or terracotta containers, and these need not be deep as the roots naturally spread out horizontally. Pots of Paint Brush can be grown very successfully on a shady veranda, and it is also suitable as an indoor plant where it should be placed in a position receiving dappled light but not direct sunlight. Plants like to become pot-bound and mature bulbs flower reliably every year, and only need to be divided every 7 or 8 years when flowering performance starts to diminish. Paint Brush is not hardy and has to be grown under the protection of the cool greenhouse in countries with very cold winter conditions.
Propagation of Paint Brush is by seed and by separation of offsets from thick clumps. Seeds are sown once the ripe berries have become soft and turned a bright orange or red color from the end of winter to early summer. Germination can take several months, so be patient.
Seedlings should be allowed to remain in the trays for two years and can be planted out into the garden or permanent pots in spring at the beginning of their third season, during which time the first flowers can be expected, under ideal conditions.
Offset bulbs are best separated from thick clumps in early spring, as temperatures begin to rise, ensuring that each offset has a good supply of roots. They should not be forcibly broken away from the mother bulbs but should be tugged away gently. They should be replanted as soon as possible and kept well shaded until the bulbs have established themselves and formed additional roots.
Pests and Diseases
Paint Brush is not often subject to attack by pests or diseases, but the leaves are sometimes invaded by the Dreaded Lily Borer, also known as Amaryllis Caterpillar. This pest, which is most prevalent during the hot summer months, can be controlled by cutting away and disposing of affected leaves or by spraying with a carbaryl-based insecticide in severe infestations.
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Breaking in a New Paintbrush
When you get your new quality brush, it's best to break it in a little. To break it in, proceed as follows:
- Slap the brush bristles against your hand several times to loosen them.
- Then slap the brush against a table edge several times to further loosen the bristles.
- Spin the brush handle in your hand back and forth to spin out loose bristles.
- Dip the paintbrush in the paint (1/3 the bristle length), and paint a newspaper page (several sheets thick) back and forth in an "X" pattern to break in the bristles.
- Look at the brush, and remove any bristles that are bent and sticking out by cutting off with a nail clipper.
- For a natural-bristle brush, you may also want to condition the bristles by soaking the brush in linseed oil overnight before use.
Indian Paintbrush Care Must-Knows
Wild Indian paintbrush thrives in sandy soil, sagebrush plains, grassland, and semidesert locations up to 9,500 feet. That's why it's best suited for naturalized areas and prairie pockets alongside other native plants rather than manicured gardens. A symbiotic plant, Indian paintbrush grows best when planted where its root system can tap into the root system of a host plant to obtain nutrients. The host plant is rarely harmed by the relationship and Indian paintbrush thrives. Good host plants include little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), beardtongue (Penstemon), and blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium).
Seeding is the best way to plant Indian paintbrush because container-grown plants are difficult to transplant. Seed Indian paintbrush in early spring or late summer in full sun and well-drained soil that's between 55 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Be patient the seeds may take a few months to germinate.
Keep the soil moist—but not soggy—during the first year. (After that any surviving plants will be drought-tolerant and only need occasional watering.) Do not fertilize. Expect young plants to unfurl a low-growing rosette of foliage during that first growing season. Colorful bracts appear in spring or early summer of the second growing season followed by seeds in the fall. The plant will die shortly after setting the seed that will become a new generation of Indian paintbrush.
Although plants will reseed in optimal growing conditions, you'll increase your chances of developing a colony of Indian paintbrush plants by planting additional seeds every autumn. If that's your plan, harvest the seedpods as soon as they start to look dry and brown. Spread them out to finish drying. Remove the seeds, then store them in a brown paper bag in a cool, dry space. Shake the bag often until it's time to plant.