In living colour
The bright pink, red and white flowers of the impala lily (Adenium multiflorum) are a welcome sight amid the drab winter surroundings of the Lowveld winter. This lily is one of the best known of the South African adeniums, and is a popular fixture in gardens, due to its brilliant dry-season blooms.
Similar in form to a small baobab, this deciduous succulent shrub can grow up to 3m tall and bears long shiny green leaves with a pale underside in the spring. For most of the year however, the plants are bare, with neither flowers nor leaves on the shiny grey to brown bark. In areas where adeniums are browsed extensively, their growth can become stunted, and baboons are particularly damaging, sometimes uprooting whole plants while they feast.
Just before flowering, in June, the leaves are shed, leaving the tree bare to display the blossoms in all their glory. The flowers emerge en masse from the tips of the branches, sometimes covering the whole shrub. They have crinkly red ends, fading to white on the inside and can be up to 5cm in diameter.
The flowers mature into long thin fruits, called follicles, borne in pairs and connected at the centre. The fruits split open along a single seam to release the seeds.
The preferred habitat of the impala lily is sandy soil in dry woodland, open grassland and the brackish flats of the Lowveld. Their thick underground stems allow them to survive for long periods without water and they cannot tolerate over-watering or clay soils.
Propagation is by means of seeds carried on the wind via their tufts of silky hairs. These seeds are pollinated by the many insects, which are attracted to the plants fiery blossoms. It is also possible to grow the plants from cuttings or grafting.
In Africa, the sap of the impala lily is used to manufacture poison for hunting arrows and the leaves and flowers are toxic to goats and cattle. The sap is also an ingredient of the magic potions and medicines by traditional healers.
Despite its toxicity, the sap of the impala lily contains over thirty chemicals, which act on the heart – some in a positive way, which are being investigated as a treatment for cardiac arrest.