AGAPANTHUS, derived from the Greek agapeo and anthos, translates as “the flower with which one is well pleased.” At this time of year, and stretching into autumn, there is certainly much to commend the African lily, the common name for the genus, alluding to its native home of South Africa.
The characteristically strappy leaves add texture to a planting scheme, but it is the globes of tubular flowers, sent up on long stems, that really please the gardener and the flower arranger. These can be in a pure blue, white, or silver-grey through to mauve and purple tones.
Plants are seen all round the world, testament to its adaptability, and the flowers seem to fit into any garden style from cottage to urban minimalist. In my experience, they are rabbit-resistant, and, while slugs and snails may hide in a mature clump of foliage, they don’t eat them.
It is true that you need patience to see a young plant reach flowering size, but then it will go on bulking up for years, as its rhizomes spread through the soil. Agapanthus perform well in pots, but, contrary to some oft-repeated advice, do not like being pot-bound. When their fleshy roots fill the pot, it is best to move them into a slightly bigger one.
The garden varieties of agapanthus are derived from a few wild species. The genes for cold-hardiness tend to be linked with those conveying a deciduous nature. If a plant in your care has leaves that shrivel and brown in the autumn, you can be fairly sure that the rootstock will come through a British winter, particularly if you treat it to a protective mulch of leaves or garden compost.
If they are keen to persist, however, it is probably best grown in a pot, and kept frost-free over winter unless you live in a mild area.
In the middle of the last century, a certain Lewis Palmer did much to popularise agapanthus in Britain by breeding hardy varieties. He is responsible for the well-known A. “Headbourne Hybrids”. This is still widely available, and a great plant that gives a fantastic display of lilac-blue flower heads; but be wary of plants labelled thus but grown from seed, as they will not be true to type. They need to be divisions of the mother plant, or from tissue culture.
Today, we have a wealth of agapanthus hybrids to choose from. “Loch Hope” is a giant deciduous variety with large deep-blue flowers that look great at the back of a border. “Midnight Star” is a favourite of mine that is sometimes sold as “Navy Blue”. It is hardy, and generous with its flowers, which are a particularly deep blue. “Northern Star” is similar, and another winner. “Taw Valley” has intensely blue flowers, but does tend to flop in the rain. New Zealand breeders have given us semi-evergreen and long-flowering “Timaru”, and the more tender and diminutive “Silver Baby”, which has pale-blue blooms.
Pine Cottage Plants in Devon holds a National Collection of Agapanthus. It will be holding its annual open week from 9 to 15 August, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., when itscollection will be in full flower.