Dear Readers, there appear to be fashions in plants, just as there are in most other things, and in the south-facing gardens of Bedford Road in East Finchley there is pot after pot of Agapanthus. Some of the pots are elegant in Majorelle blue, which nicely highlights the sky blue of the flowers. There are lots of bees about too, which always makes me happy. My book ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ says that only a few cultivars are actually liked by pollinators, however, so if you’re thinking of getting some I would apply the Garden Centre test – watch to see which ones the bees visit, and go for one of those. In my experience, plants which are closest to the original wild plant always work better than those which have been ‘messed about with’, so I’d go for a blue one, rather than the pink and white ones that seem to be popping up. There is a Dutch grower who specialises in Agapanthus if you want to have a look at some of the varieties that are available. And do let me know your experience! I always think of this blog as a communal effort.
Also known as ‘blue lily’, ‘African lily’ or even ‘Lily of the Nile’ (although the plant isn’t actually a lily at all), Agapanthus plants in the UK are normally of the Agapanthus praecox species, which comes originally from Natal and the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. The very name ‘Agapanthus’ comes from the Greek for ‘love flower’, and there is a lot to love about the plant: it can live for up to 75 years, can withstand drought, wind and frost down to -15 once established, and flowers for a long time. The young shoots need to be protected from slugs and snails but once an agapanthus is ‘up and running’ you’re in business. I really like these plants en masse in a border – they echo the colour of the spring bluebells. The plants grow from a rhizome, which resembles a piece of ginger, and which helps to store water when there isn’t much about.
I didn’t expect to find that Agapanthus was a naturalised species, but as usual I find myself surprised. In the Isles of Scilly, the Agapanthus has taken to the local sand dunes with great gusto – maybe the light soil and sunny conditions remind the plant of its home, and as it spreads via rhizomes it can quickly establish itself. It also appears to have be naturalised in Australia and New Zealand – in the former, it was widely planted in municipal beds because it was drought-tolerant, but this now seems to have been discontinued, although it is apparently a popular cemetery plant in the Antipodes, probably because it is relatively low maintenance.
In its native South Africa, the Xhosa people believe that the Agapanthus helps to enhance the well-being of pregnant women, who drink a tea made from the plant during their third trimester, and wear a necklace of dried Agapanthus root during pregnancy to protect the baby. When the baby is born, it is bathed in a solution of Agapanthus, which is believed to make the infant strong and healthy. For the Zulu people, the plant is used to cure a whole variety of ailments, including heart conditions, paralysis, colds and flu. The leaves are plaited into bandages for tired feet. However, the Agapanthus root is thought to be purgative if ingested, according to an interesting study of poisonous plants in New Zealand, though eating a few flowers or leaves was not thought to do much harm. There is also some thought that the sap may cause skin irritation in susceptible people.
Agapanthus is also traditionally used to ward off thunder, though there is plenty about in East Finchley today. I think the plant should pull its socks up.
It will probably come as no surprise that a plant as beautiful as the Agapanthus has inspired artists – Claude Monet painted the plant in his garden at Giverny many times. Monet spent the last years of his life here, following the death of his second wife and his son. In 1926, Monet himself died of lung cancer and at his funeral his long-time friend, George Clemanceau, removed the black cloth that had been draped over his coffin and, saying ‘no black for Monet!’ replaced it with a floral one.
And just to end on a classy note, here is a poem by Pam Ayres. She was such a feature of my childhood, with her works including ‘I wish I’d looked after me teeth‘ ( to get the full effect, you should hear her reading it herself here). Ayres lives with her husband in the Cotswold and has a small holding with rare breeds of farm animal. She is also patron of several animal welfare organisations and sanctuaries, and her love for creatures is very clear in her poems.
Dog Gardening Poem
I love to do the gardening,
I roll on the acanthus,
Do flops across the echinops,
And trash the agapanthus.
Ah yes, this reminds me of trying to do any serious gardening with our family dog Spock when I was growing up.
But Ayres also has a serious side. I really love this poem. See what you think.
WOODLAND BURIAL by Pam Ayres.
Don’t lay me down in some gloomy churchyard shaded by a wall
Where the dust of ancient bones has spread dryness over all.
Lay me in some leafy loam where, sheltered from the cold
Little seeds investigate and tender leaves unfold.
There kindly and affectionately plant a native tree
To grow resplendent before God and hold some part of me.
The roots will not disturb me as they wend their peaceful way
To build the fine and bountiful, from closure and decay.
To seek their small requirements so that when their work is done
I’ll be tall and standing strongly in the beauty of the Sun.
A lovely read! One sees banks of Agapanthus lining the streets of Cape Town. My own plants in the Eastern Cape battle to flower even though I have moved them twice in thirty years. I have always loved seeing these flowers growing wild,such as in the forests along the coast at Tsitsikamma.
I would love to see them growing wild, Anne. Nothing beats seeing healthy plants in their own ecosystem, with all the other plants and insects that they interact with.
This is still a very common perennial here. It used to be one of the most common. The bees used to really like them, bot the old fashioned blue, as well as the old fashioned white. There was also a dwarf cultivar too. All these modern cultivars are . . . weird. The originals were too perfect to improve on. I am not aware of any that are pink, although I have seen scams for pink agapanthus online. They are just white agapanthus colored pink in their pictures. Tulbaghia has lavender flowers, and is sometimes sold as pink agapanthus. Purple agapanthus are available, but are not very pretty.
‘The originals are too perfect to improve on’….I couldn’t agree more!
The first time I saw Agapanthus flowers was on a childhood trip to the Isles of Scilly, where, as you mentioned, they grow in glorious abundance. I was captivated by their brilliant blue, a perfect match for the sea and the sky, and I’ve had great affection for them ever since. (The weather has always been wonderful when I’ve been to Scilly except, annoyingly, when we took my mum to Tresco for her 70th birthday, and there was torrential rain all day!).
These days, Agapanthus thrives here in West Cornwall too – not surprising really, as the islands are less than 30 miles from Land’s End. It’s one of the star attractions in my local public garden – but last year the plants took an unprecedented battering from ferocious east winds and frost, and many were reduced to brown mush. Although they survived, the flowers were sparse and spindly in June, but recovered to put on a late summer show. This year they’re looking better than ever.
Hi Liz! I am thinking that I must get to the Isles of Scilly. I’m sorry the weather was so unkind for your Mum’s visit, it often seems to be the way. We had plans to take Dad out this week, but as the temperatures soared we decided it was too risky. Maybe next time!
That shade of blue!
Thank you for the Pam ayres poems, she really is good.