What is a Forest Lily?

N. Phipps

The forest lily, Veltheimia bracteata, is a winter-growing bulb in its native lands of South Africa. Named in honor of German botanist August Ferdinand Graf von Veltheim, the genus consists of just two species. V. capensis, otherwise known as the sand lily, is the other form. Both species may also be recognized under the names sand onion or winter red-hot poker as well.

The forest lily is accustomed to the warm, dry climate of South Africa, and does not tolerate cold well.
The forest lily is accustomed to the warm, dry climate of South Africa, and does not tolerate cold well.

Forest lily bulbs produce tall spikes of tubular flowers amid sword-shaped foliage. The pale to deep pink blooms are occasionally spotted with green at the tips. This gives the plant that red hot poker-like appearance.V. bracteata, "Lemon Flame," is a greenish-yellow variety. Blooms appear in late winter to early spring in its native environment, or from summer to fall in the United States.

The long-lasting flowers make excellent additions to mixed beds and borders. In addition, they’re quite attractive to hummingbirds. Once the forest lily blooms fade, they are replaced with papery-like seed pods. Soon after these ripen, the whole plant begins to die back with new leaves emerging once its short dormancy has ended. In frost-free regions, however, it is not uncommon for this plant to remain green year-round. As the plant is accustomed to the warm, dry climate of South Africa, forest lily does not tolerate cold well, so it needs to be protected from severe frost and freezing temperatures.

While in suitable climates, the plant can be easily grown outdoors, people living in colder regions may find it easier to grow a forest lily in a container. This allows it to be moved indoors for overwintering. Forest lilies require well-draining, preferably humus-rich, soil. They need light sun to partial shade or bright light indoors. Planted much like amaryllis bulbs, they are placed with the necks just above the soil line.

Caring for these plants is just as simple. During active growth, the forest lily should be given a well-balanced, water-soluble fertilizer at least every other week. The flower stalks can be removed once they have died back. It’s also a good idea to look out for pests, as outdoor plants may be prone to attacks by slugs, snails, and caterpillars. Both indoor and outdoor forest lilies may be affected by mealy bugs on occasion as well.

These plants can be propagated by seed, cuttings, or offsets. Seeds are generally sown in fall, germinating within two to three weeks. Leaf cuttings may be taken in summer and planted in sandy soil where roots or bulblets should begin forming within about a month or so. Offsets should be taken in late summer once the foliage has faded, or the forest lily plants can be lifted and divided every two to three years.

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