The African Lily (Agapanthus) is popular in gardens in the Algarve and throughout the Mediterranean, but it is not generally known that there are evergreen and deciduous species.
Agapanthus is a genus of six species of fleshy-rooted perennials with a long history of taxonomic confusion. It now resides in its own family, the Agapanthaceae, a sister family to the Amaryllidaceae.
The name Agapanthus is derived from Greek. ‘Agape’ means love and ‘anthos’ flower, so we have “love flower”.
Agapanthus is actually endemic to Southern Africa. In its native areas, it is considered to be both a magical and a medicinal plant, used to treat heart disease, paralysis, coughs, colds, and other ailments, and the leaves are used as bandages (the plant does contain chemicals with anti-inflammatory and other properties). However, the plant’s sap can cause minor irritation or dermatitis in susceptible individuals and will cause severe pain in the mouth if ingested.
In the Netherlands in 1679, Jacob Breyne mentioned Agapanthus for the first time. He describes a flowering plant in the garden of Hieronymus von Beverninck in Warmond. As the Dutch East India company founded a branch office in Cape Town in 1652, it is assumed they imported the plants.
Since then, countless plants were imported to the Netherlands from South Africa. The first description applied to Agapanthus africanus, which is common in South Africa and was named by Linne in 1753 as Crinum africanum. The plant was given its present name by L’Heritier, the director of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Unfortunately, L’Heritier also used the incorrect name umbellatus and not the correct name africanus by Linne. To this day, this incorrect name leads to confusion with the genus.
From its introduction through to the 19th century, little new happened to Agapanthus. That changed in about 1870 when plants under the name ‘mooreanus’ arrived from South Africa at the Botanic Gardens of Glasnevin in Dublin. The advantage of ‘mooreanus’ was that the plants were deciduous and, therefore, more winter hardy. Other varieties were introduced by famous breeders like Lemoine in France, Leichtlin in Germany and Krelage in Haarlem. Usually, these were evergreen plants which had to be overwintered in frost-free conditions such as an orangery.
Agapanthus inapertus was introduced by van Tubergen in 1913. Van Tubergen got this species from Leichtlin in 1898. It is a deciduous plant with trailing, tubular flowers. From 1950 to 1960, Lewis Palmer of England introduced new varieties which are known under the collective name Headbourne Hybrids. Later, an important trial with Agapanthus took place at the RHS Garden Wisley when 72 varieties were examined. These trials led to an enormous interest in Agapanthus. Many varieties earned well-deserved awards.
Today, the range of Agapanthus available is huge. There are two evergreen species (A. africanus and A. praecox) and four deciduous species (A. campanulatus, A. caulescens, A. coddii and A. inapertus), but few of these are commonly available as ornamentals (and not all nurseries follow this most recent classification, so you may see other species’ names used).
There are numerous hybrid cultivars with a range of characteristics and sizes hardy in zones 7-11. Because Agapanthus species hybridise readily with each other, especially when grown in close proximity, many of these garden hybrids are of undocumented parentage.
There is a very special plant nursery in the Algarve which grows selected Agapanthus as a cut flower for the Dutch flower markets.
They make excellent container plants. Plant Agapanthus just deep enough to cover the roots, spacing them about 20cm apart. A single plant will fill a 30cm pot or use more in larger pots. Use well-drained potting mix, as they do not tolerate waterlogged soil. During the growing season, containers can be fertilised lightly; over-fertilisation will result in lanky growth. The true blue colour of the flowers associates well with many other architectural plants and with yellow cannas, pink crinums or orange daylilies.