Plant 349

Agapanthus species (Amaryllidaceae)

African lily

The generic name Agapanthus comes from the Greek agape (love) and anthos (flower), which may be interpreted as meaning ‘flower of love’ or ‘lovely flower’. There are seven species in the genus, all of which are naturally distributed from Mozambique to South Africa. Hence one of their common names – African lilies. There are two broad species groups in the genus. Evergreen species grow in coastal areas, where rain is concentrated in the winter or where there is rain all year round. Deciduous species are found further inland, in more mountainous areas, where winters are dry, and summers are wet. Thick, fleshy roots are produced from a rhizome.

Agapanthus was initially introduced to Europe, via Dutch settlers in southern Africa and the sea routes of cargo ships, and were planted in the gardens of merchants and traders in the mid- to late-seventeenth century. The evergreen Agapanthus praecox has become naturalised in the mild climate of Tresco in the Isles of Scilly.

African lilies are good ornamental plants in the garden or conservatory and can make striking clumps, with large strap-shaped, usually arching leaves and bearing umbels of many tubular bell- or trumpet-shaped blue, white or bicoloured flowers. The flower stems are good for cutting, some species have stems up to 1.8 metres tall, with ornamental fruit heads. Many hybrids have been produced, most of which are deciduous, as these are hardier than evergreen species. The toughest varieties will survive temperatures as low as -15 degrees Celsius, especially when grown in a well-drained, sunny positions and when well mulched, but -5 degrees Celsius is a more advisable lower temperature limit. Evergreen species, and more tender deciduous varieties, are better pot grown and moved into a frost-free greenhouse for the winter. Agapanthus will survive becoming pot-bound, but eventually it will be necessary to divide the crowns of the plants if they are to continue flowering.

In the wild, Agapanthus species are pollinated by wind, bees and sunbirds, with subsequent seed dispersal by wind. Species such as Agapanthus africanus, which are capable of re-sprouting from thick, fleshy roots, are adapted to the frequent of the fynbos region of South Africa. Following fire, such species often bloom profusely.

In Africa, Agapanthus is thought to be both a magical and a medicinal plant. The Zulus use Agapanthus to treat heart disease, paralysis, coughs, colds and chest pains. It is also used, with other medicines, during pregnancy.

Further reading

Huxley, A 1999. The New Royal Horticultural Society dictionary of gardening. Groves Dictionaries Inc.

Snoeijer W 2004. Agapanthus: a revision of the genus. Timber Press.

Lucinda Lachelin