Blood Lily - Vishakanye with medicinal properties

Some plants are short lived and also bloom for a short period but make a great impact.  ''The blood Lily'' belongs to this category.  

It is, now, blooming in Mysore   The magnificent and showy flower heads pop up on a long stock from the bulb, resembling a small sized football atop a long stem in a leafless condition.

Undoubtedly, this radiant floral head is the cynosure of all eyes when it blooms during hot summer months (May/ June).

The arrival of the flowers every year will be a welcome surprise as they appear when the plants have completely ‘disappeared.’ It is also known as the  ‘Fireball’  and   ‘Pin Cushion Lilly’  in India and   ‘scarlet lily’, ‘football lily’ ‘red cape lily’, ‘hood lily’, ‘blood flower’ and ‘powder puff lily’etc., elsewhere. It is originally from the rocky cliffs and woodlands of tropical Africa and Yemen.

The blood lily belongs to the family Amaryllidaceae, a sister family of onions and goes under the botanical name, Scadoxus multiflorus ( syn. Haemanthus multiflorus ) Scadoxus was named by Rafinesque, to mean glorious umbel.  However the, synonym genera ‘Haemanthus’ is derived from Greek and refers to red coloured flowers (Haema: blood; anthos: flower), ‘multiflorus,’ refers to an innumerable number of flowers.

Blood lily is a bulbous perennial.  It is tender and deciduous. This exotic herb bears broad, brilliant green leaves, arranged spirally. The leaves are long and sword shaped.  The underground bulbs are white, fleshy and thick.  They remain fully dormant in the winter, but come summer and a long (30 to 40cm) solid stout stem pops up. It is on this stem, called the scape that the globular flower head blooms.

Each plant will produce only one spectacular flower-head in a season. A large number of scarlet flowers (up to 200 flowers) grouped in a large spherical umbel on a long stalk, held clear of the foliage at the end of a solitary stem, is a novelty.  Like the flowers of the onion, the individual flower is cylindrical at the base, with six star-like tepals (they are  neither sepals or petals). 

The stamens are conspicuous. After the flowers fade and finally collapse, the fruits – orange or red berries  which are   visible as  swellings of the flower stalks below the flowers, resemble  tiny beads. These decorative berries can remain on the plant for  nearly two months.  When they are  ripen, the inflorescence disappears and there is a brief spell of silence. Then the lush leaves start appearing.  Before winter, they fade, turn yellow and die, but the bulbs remain under ground, waiting for the following summer, when they can pop up again.

There are two sub species. The one described above is  Scadoxus multiflorus ssp. multiflorus.  The other one is Scadoxus multiflorus subsp. katherinae (formerly Haemanthus katherinae) is a taller plant with wavy-edged leaves and somewhat larger flower heads.

The plants can be propagated from offsets, bulbs or seeds.  They need a warm climate.  While full sunlight or dappled shade is preferable in temperate areas, hot and humid weather conditions of the coastal areas call for semi shade, preferably under trees. 

Growing the plants is hardly a bother, but frost is a no-no.  You can grow them out of pots in the balcony, windowsill, or even at the base of a warm sunny wall. Sometimes bugs cause tufts of white waxy wool on the plant, Then the affected part with a clean damp cloth and spray neem based biopesticide (2ml/liter) for remedy.

Keep an eye out, for all parts of this plant are poisonous due to a toxic substance called lycosine and some other alkaloids present in the plant.  This reminds me of  Vishakanye who was supposed to be very beautiful but had a poisonous body.  The bulb has some medicinal properties too.  It is used to treat dropsy, scabies and poorly healing wounds there.

Caution : Wash hands after handling the plant.  The plant sap is supposed to cause skin irritation, swelling of lips and tongue.  Cause mild stomach upset if ingested (salivation, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea).

email: swamy.clri@gmail.com

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