I doubt that there is a South African gardener alive that has not
come across an agapanthus somewhere! They line our roads, and are
in most gardens and parks, from the tall globular-headed ones to
the ever-shrinking dwarf cultivars now available at garden centres.
Most of the agapanthus that are grown are cultivars or hybrids of
Description & Distribution
Agapanthus is a very variable genus, yet they are all broadly
similar in appearance, with rhizomatous roots, strap-like leaves
and an umbellate inflorescence on a stalk held above the leaves.
Botanists have always found it tricky to classify them into distinct
species. Frances Leighton revised the genus in 1965, recognizing
ten species in total: four evergreen species, viz. A. africanus,
A. comptonii, A. praecox and A. walshii and six deciduous species,
viz. A. campanulatus, A. caulescens, A. coddii,
A. dyeri, A. inapertus and A. nutans. Zonneveld &
Duncan (2003), using nuclear DNA content and pollen vitality and
colour, as well as morphology, now consider A. comptonii
to be identical to A. praecox subsp. minimus; A.
walshii to be a subspecies of A. africanus; A. dyeri
to be identical to A. inapertus subsp. intermedius;
and A. nutans to be identical to A caulescens. As
a result there are now only two evergreen species i.e. A. africanus
and A. praecox and four deciduous species i.e. A. campanulatus,
A. caulescens, A. coddii and A. inapertus, making six
species in total.
The evergreen species come from the winter rainfall Western Cape
and all-year rainfall Eastern Cape and shed a few of their old outer
leaves every year and replace them with new leaves from the apex
of the growing shoot. The deciduous species come from the summer
rainfall Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland, Free State, Lesotho,
Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and Mozambique, and grow rapidly in
spring with the onset of the rains, and then lose their leaves completely
and lie dormant during winter. Deciduous species covered on this
website to date include A. coddii,
and A. inapertus with its
dark blue clone 'Graskop'.
Agapanthus praecox, one of the evergreens, is an extremely
variable species consisting of three subspecies: subsp. praecox,
subsp. orientalis and subsp. minimus.
It can be recognized by its 6-20 leaves per individual plant. These
leaves are strap-like and may be leathery or flaccid, narrow or
broad, short or long and have blunt or pointed tips. Although this
description is very broad, it is relatively easy to tell it apart
from the other evergreen species: A. africanus is restricted
to Western Cape, mainly from the Cape Peninsula to Paarl and Stellenbosch,
and as far eastwards as Swellendam. Its range does not overlap with
that of A. praecox. It is small, 250 to 700 mm, flowers in
late summer (December to April) and its perianth is thick or fleshy
in texture and the leaves are leathery. Many gardeners and even
some authors of publications mistakenly call the agapanthus in cultivation
A. africanus. This is almost certainly incorrect. A. africanus
is a winter rainfall plant and is difficult in cultivation, needing
very well-drained soil, hot, dry summers and wet winters. Practically
all the evergreen agapanthus in cultivation in the world, are hybrids
or cultivars of A. praecox.
praecox subsp. praecox occurs in Eastern Cape, it is
generally 0.8 to 1 m tall and flowers in mid to late summer (December
- February). It is distinguished from the other two subspecies by
its longer perianth segments (50 mm or longer) and fewer leaves
(10-11 per plant) which are leathery and suberect (spreading rather
than arching). Flowers are open-faced and medium blue.
praecox subsp. orientalis (F.M.Leight.) F.M.Leight. occurs
in Eastern Cape and southern KwaZulu-Natal and is also generally
0.8 to 1 m tall and flowers in mid to late summer (December - February).
It is distinguished from subsp. praecox by its shorter perianth
segments (less than 50 mm), and it has more leaves (up to 20 per
plant) which are not leathery and have an arching habit. It differs
from subsp. minimus by having a more dense inflorescence,
the whole plant is larger and it forms thick clumps. Flowers are
open-faced, pale to medium blue or pure white.
praecox subsp. minimus (Lindl.) F.M.Leight. occurs
in the southeastern Western Cape and Eastern Cape, is smaller than
the other two, only 300 to 600 mm tall, and starts flowering earlier,
from early to late summer (November to March). It differs from the
other two subspecies in being a smaller plant, with fewer leaves
per plant (up to 10) and there are fewer flowers in the inflorescence.
It has shorter perianth segments than subsp. praecox (less than
50mm) and it does not form as dense clumps as subsp. orientalis.
Flowers are open-faced, pale to dark blue or occasionally greyish
white or white.
Agapanthus species are easily able to hybridize with each
other, particularly when grown in close proximity and as a result,
a bewildering array of garden hybrids have arisen. At Kirstenbosch
in addition to having many examples of the pure, wild-collected
Agapanthus species on display, we have a number of different
forms of the species, both of garden origin and wild-collected.
Those that we have for A. praecox are shown below.
Agapanthus praecox 'Dwarf White'
leaves approx. 165 mm, flower stalks up to 500 mm, white
flowers in early summer, very floriferous, multiplies well,
ideal for rockeries.
Agapanthus praecox 'Medium White'
leaves approx. 330 mm, flower stalks up to 800 mm, compact,
white flowerheads in summer.
Agapanthus praecox 'Miniature White'
narrow leaves approx. 300 mm high, flower stalks up to 650
Agapanthus praecox subsp. minimus 'Adelaide'
: leaves approx.
500 mm, flower stalks up to 800 mm tall, bright blue flowers
in summer, very floriferous all summer, full sun or partial
shade, good ground cover.
Agapanthus praecox subsp. minimus 'Storms River'
approx. 600 mm, flower stalks up to 800 mm, unusual very pale
blue to greyish white, large flowerheads in summer, full sun
or light shade.
Agapanthus praecox subsp. orientalis 'Mt Thomas'
leaves approx. 800 mm, flower stalks up to 1 200 mm, bright
blue, compact flowerheads in summer, grey foliage.
Agapanthus praecox subsp. orientalis 'Weaver
leaves approx. 800 mm, flower stalks up to 1 000 mm, large,
blue flowerheads in summer, floriferous, sun or semi-shade.
Agapanthus praecox subsp. praecox 'Azure'
leaves approx. 800 mm, flower stalks up to 1 000 mm,
dark blue flowerheads in midsummer, broad, evergreen leaves,
prefers partial shade.
Agapanthus praecox subsp. praecox 'Floribunda'
leaves approx. 800 mm, flower stalks up to 1 000 mm,
attractive leaves, large heads of blue flowers in summer,
full sun or semi-shade.
Derivation of the name and historical aspects
The genus Agapanthus was established by L'Heritier in 1788.
It used to be included in the Liliaceae (lily family), was then
moved to the Amaryllidaceae (amaryllis and daffodil family), moved
again into the Alliaceae (onion family) then back to Amaryllidaceae
and now resides in its own family, the Agapanthaceae. All this taxonomic
to-and-fro'ing seems to be about whether its umbellate inflorescence
is considered to be of greater taxonomic importance than its superior
ovary. It is placed in its own family, a sister family to the Amaryllidaceae,
on the strength of its superior ovary, the presence of saponins
and the absence of amaryllid alkaloids. The Agapanthaceae is a monotypic
family (consists of only one genus) that is endemic to southern
Africa, i.e. Agapanthus occurs naturally nowhere else on
Earth. The six variable species are widespread in all the provinces
of South Africa except for the Northern Cape, and in Lesotho, Swaziland
and Mozambique, but not in Namibia or Botswana. They occur only
in areas where the rainfall is more than 500 mm (20 inches) per
annum, from sea level to 2 000 m (7000 ft), with a distribution
range that extends from the Cape Peninsula in the southwest, along
the southern and eastern coast of southern Africa then inland and
northwards into the mountainous regions south of the Limpopo River.
The name Agapanthus is derived from the Greek agapé
love and anthos, flower. There is no clear reason for this
derivation although it could be interpreted as 'lovely flower' or
'flower of love'. Agapeo means 'to be contented with' which
is a possible derivation, i.e. 'flower with which I am well pleased'.
The specific name praecox means early, premature, unseasonable
or precocious in Latin, and was possibly given because compared
to the other species it is an early flowerer; minimus means
smallest, which it is; and orientalis of the east, which
is most likely a case of mistaken origin. Quite often in those days,
the ships carrying the new plant material back to Europe came from
the East, via the Cape, and some of the botanists assumed that all
the plants on board came from the East.
Agapanthus has attracted a few common names over the years.
In its first publication in Europe in 1679 it was called the African
hyacinth. Linnaeus called it the African lily, and nowadays in Europe
and America it is still known as the African lily, but also rather
inappropriately as lily of the Nile. In South Africa they are commonly
referred to as agapanthus.
Agapanthus is considered to be both a magical and a medicinal plant,
and the plant of fertility and pregnancy. Xhosa women use the roots
to make antenatal medicine, and they make a necklace using the roots
that they wear as a charm to bring healthy, strong babies. The Zulu
use agapanthus to treat heart disease, paralysis, coughs, colds,
chest pains and tightness. It is also used with other plants in
various medicines taken during pregnancy to ensure healthy children,
or to augment or induce labour. It is also used as a love charm
and by people afraid of thunderstorms, and to ward off thunder.
Margaret Roberts advises hikers to put leaves in their shoes to
soothe the feet, and to wrap weary feet in the leaves for half an
hour. The long, strap-like leaves also make an excellent bandage
to hold a dressing or poultice in place, and winding leaves around
the wrists are said to help bring a fever down. Agapanthus contains
several saponins and sapogenins that generally have anti-inflammatory
(reduce swelling and inflammation), anti-oedema (oedema = swelling
due to accumulation of fluid), antitussive (relieve or suppress
coughing) and immunoregulatory (have influence on the immune system)
properties. Although the precise activity of agapanthus compounds
is not known, preliminary tests have shown uterotonic activity (increases
the tone of uterine muscles). Agapanthus is suspected of causing
haemolytic poisoning in humans, and the sap causes severe ulceration
of the mouth.
Growing Agapanthus praecox
Agapanthus praecox is easy to grow and it does well even in the
poorest of soils, but it must receive some water in summer. To perform
at its best, give it rich, well-drained soil with ample compost
(decayed organic matter) and plenty of water in spring and summer.
As with most plants they benefit most from regular (e.g. weekly)
deep drenching as opposed to frequent superficial waterings. It
prefers full sun, and some cultivars will flower in semi-shade.
All the evergreen agapanthus are best lifted and divided every four
years or so to ensure flowering. A. praecox will tolerate
light frost, but is hardy only in the milder parts of the Northern
Hemisphere, like the southwest of England and in the Mediterranean.
In areas with extreme winter temperatures they are best grown in
the cool greenhouse, or in containers that can be taken into a greenhouse
Agapanthus praecox is ideal for mass displays, the larger
species and cultivars are wonderful as a backdrop to the herbaceous
border, whereas the smaller ones are excellent in the front of the
border, or as an edging plant or in rockeries. They are a good companion
for winter growing plants like Chasmanthe floribunda. All
of them make good pot plants. A. praecox is also an excellent
plant to use to stabilize a bank and to prevent erosion, and in
difficult seaside gardens they stand up to the wind. A. praecox
is an excellent cutflower, either whole heads, or individual flowers
in small arrangements or wired and used in bouquets and posies.
Propagation is by seed or division. Because agapanthus plants hybridize
freely with each other, and are all in flower at the same time,
you can be sure that there will be hybrids from seed harvested in
the Kirstenbosch Garden. To get pure seed of any Agapanthus
species it would have to be habitat collected or pollinated under
strictly controlled conditions. Even then, there is always a degree
of variation in the offspring. If you are after a particular cultivar,
division is still the most reliable way of making sure that the
material being propagated will be exactly true to type.
Seed can be sown fresh, in late summer - autumn, but in cold climates
it can be kept refrigerated (not frozen) and sown in spring. It
must be kept in the refrigerator or it will perish. Seed should
be sown in deep (10 cm) trays, in a mixture of equal parts river
sand and fine compost, and kept semi-shaded and moist. Seed germinates
readily within six to eight weeks. The seed should be sown thinly
as the seedlings will stay in the tray for their first year. Seedlings
should be potted up into individual containers during their second
year and can be planted into the garden or permanent pots in their
third year. Flowering can be expected from their third or fourth
Clumps are best lifted and divided just after the end of their
flowering period in early March (late summer - autumn). Unlike the
deciduous species, which should be left alone for up to 6 years
and often don't flower the first year after being divided, the evergreens
are best lifted every four years and usually flower best in their
first season after dividing. You need your health and strength to
lift and divide large agapanthus clumps - what works well is to
place two garden forks back to back in the centre of the clump and
prize them apart. Or the clump can be chopped up with a spade. Reduce
the length of the foliage by one half and reduce the roots by two-thirds.
Replant immediately and water thoroughly.
Agapanthus praecox is generally pest- and disease-free.
Foliage may be attacked by red spider mites, thrips, and mealy bug
but need only be sprayed if infestation is severe. Agapanthus are
famous for harbouring snails, although the snails do not seem to
cause any damage to the plants themselves. The best way to combat
them is to remove them by hand or to keep ducks. Botrytis, visible
as brownish lesions, may attack the flowers preventing them from
opening. There is no cure, it can only be prevented by spraying
before and after the buds break open. The foliage may be attacked
by the fungus Macrophoma agapanthii causing die-back of the
leaves, and in severe cases can be combatted with a fungicide like
mancozeb or captab as a full cover spray.
- Duncan, G. 1998. Grow Agapanthus. A guide to the species,
cultivation and propagation of the genus Agapanthus. National
Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
- Du Plessis, N. & Duncan, G. 1989. Bulbous plants of southern
Africa. A guide to their cultivation and propagation. Tafelberg,
- Hutchings, A. 1996. Zulu medicinal plants, an inventory.
University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg.
- Jackson, W.P.U. 1990. Origins and meanings of names of South
African plant genera. University of Cape Town Printing Dept.,
- Leighton, F.M. 1965. The genus Agapanthus L'Heritier. Journal
of South African Botany, suppl. vol. no. 4. National Botanic
Gardens, Cape Town.
- Leistner, O.A. (ed.) 2000. Seed plants of southern Africa: families
and genera. Strelitzia 10. National Botanical Institute,
- Roberts, M. 1990. Indigenous healing plants. Southern
Book Publishers, Halfway House, Gauteng, South Africa.
- Van Wyk, B.E., Van Oudtshoorn, B. & Gericke, N. 1997. Medicinal
plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Zonneveld, B.J.M. & Duncan, G.D. 2003. Taxonomic implications
of genome size and pollen colour and vitality for species of Agapanthus
L'Heritier (Agapanthaceae). Plant Systematics and Evolution
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden