Scadoxus puniceus (L.) Friis & Nordal

Common names: Paintbrush lily, Snake lily (E), Rooikwas (Afr), isisphompho, umgola (Z)
Family :
Amaryllidaceae (Lily Family)

Sacdoxus puniceus

The spectacular paintbrush lily is one of South Africa's most striking bulbous plants. Growing naturally in shady areas in coastal bush, ravines and forest, it can be found in the northern provinces, Free State, KwaZulu Natal and the Eastern Cape; with its distribution extending to Tropical Africa. This species is quite variable and a number of different forms occur throughout its distribution range. There are nine species of Scadoxus, of which three (S.puniceus, S.multiflorus and S.membranaceus) occur in South Africa. Closely related to Haemanthus, Scadoxus was separated in order to distinguish those plants with elongated stems (Scadoxus) from those with broad, stemless leaves (Haemanthus). The paintbrush lily was formerly known as Haemanthus magnificus. The name Scadoxus is derived from "doxus" meaning glory or splendour, and punicues means crimson, scarlet or purple.

Clump of Scadoxus puniceusIn spring and early summer the Scadoxus puniceus bears large dense heads (inflorescences) up to 15cm across consisting of numerous smaller scarlet flowers with bright yellow anthers. The flower stalk may reach up to 50-60cm and is often spotted with purple near the base. The inflorescences are borne within bracts which may be large and dark purplish red in colour. Sunbirds, weavers and other nectivorous birds feed on the nectar produced by the flowers.

The young inflorescence, protected by bracts and borne on the red/purple spotted flower stalk, appears first, followed by the stem which bears 6-8 leaves. The leaves are glossy green, reach 30-40cm in length and have wavy margins. They are held erect clasping at the base to form a pseudostem (false stem) which has red/purple speckled scale leaves at the base.

The large underground bulbs may be up to 10cm across and have a short thick stem at the base from which numerous fleshy roots arise. The plants are dormant in winter and use the large bulbs and roots to store moisture during this period.

The fruits are fleshy, round, shiny red berries up to ±1cm in diameter. They bear single soft pearl-like seeds inside. Ripe berries eaten by birds / monkeys

As within many of the closely related amaryllids, this bulb is poisonous and deaths have been reported following the ingestion of the bulb. However this species is widely used in traditional medicine to treat coughs and gastro-intestinal problems. It has also traditionally been used as part of a medicine taken regularly during pregnancy to ensure a safe delivery.

Growing Scadoxus puniceus

A popular garden subject, the paintbrush lily has been in cultivation in Holland since early 18th century. It does well planted in the ground or in containers. Plant in composted, well drained soil in a shady position. Do not move or disturb the bulb unnecessarily as flowering may be affected. Water regularly in summer and keep reasonably dry in winter. Amaryllis lily borer can cause severe damage to the whole plant, and slugs and snails can damage the foliage extensively.

The Scadoxus puniceus may be propagated from seed which must be sown fresh. It is slow-growing and will take 4-5 years before flowering.

This lovely plant is usually available at specialist indigenous nurseries or at your local National Botanical Garden. Be sure not to purchase them alongside the road or from sellers who cannot assure you of the plant's origin. Many of these plants are indiscriminately removed from the wild and sold when they are in flower.


  • Batten, A. (1986) Flowers of Southern Africa. Frandsen Publishers : Sandton.
  • Duncan, G. (2000) Grow Bulbs. Kirstenbosch Gardening Series. National Botanical Institute : Cape Town
  • Du Plessis, N. & Duncan, N. (1989). Bulbous Plants of Southern Africa. Tafelberg Publishers : Cape Town.
  • Fabian, A. & Germishuizen, G. (1997) Wild Flowers of Northern South Africa. Fernwood Press : Cape Town.
  • Joffe, P. (1993). The Gardener's Guide to South African Plants. Tafelberg Publishers : Cape Town.
  • Pooley, E. (1998). A Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Region. Natal Flora Publications Trust : Durban.
  • Van Wyk, B. & Malan, S. (1988) Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of the Witwatersrand and Pretoria Region. Struik Publishers : Cape Town.
  • Van Wyk, B-E. et al (1997) Medicinal Plants of South Africa. Briza Publications : Pretoria.

Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
September 2001

To find out if SANBI has seed of this or other SA species, please email our seedroom.

This page forms part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute's plant information website