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Cornucopia - Agapanthus and the Love Hate Relationship

Agapanthus and the love/hate relationship
Janet Sleep

Nobody could hate an agapanthus – could they? After all, the very name means flower of love. The Bantu in its native South Africa thought it a magic plant and the Xhosa brides wore a piece of the root to ensure fertility. Maybe they still do. The Australians, however, are less sure. I found a picture on the web the other day of a group of solemn but triumphant conservation pioneers in the Blue Mountains, smugly contemplating the small mountain of dying agapanthus at their feet – a bit like those pictures of Victorian tiger hunters, posed with solar topee and rifle at the ready and foot on vanquished animal. Apparently the heavenly agapanthus has run amok in the wilderness and is now being exterminated with zeal. Oh dear but what a lovely problem to have.

I can quite see how it happened, for the flower is fearfully prolific with its seeds and they take less than a month to germinate. This is problem number one. If you have a fine form, cut off the seed heads before they shed or you will get an admixture of probably inferior types in with the clump. Problem number two is finding the right site. A west wall is ideal. They like the heat but not a dry baking in the later growing season when they demand lots of food and water to make buds for the following year. They withstand drought magnificently but you will curtail subsequent flowering if you let them suffer, especially in August and September. Being contrary creatures, they will not like waterlogging in the winter either and in a more open site they will need a free-draining soil, possibly with some protection over the crown to be on the safe side.

Many of the current spate of agapanthus cultivars are derived from selections from the original 'Headbourne Hybrids', grown in England from seed sent over from Kirstenbosch in the 1940s. These are nearly all hardier than the species from which they are derived and many generations later, the survivors are naturally selected for our rather colder conditions. I grew my own batch of Headbourne Hybrids from seed in the early 1980s. These were planted out under a west wall in poor gravelly soil and more or less ignored for 20 years. Needless to say they had become a rather indifferent mess by the end and, when the builders demanded I clear the lot to make way for operations on the new porch, I was not too disturbed. However I was determined to save the one with broader leaves, which I knew to be a better sort and as this was more evergreen than the rest, it was easy to distinguish. After a few months, the builders had gone, leaving the usual mess and this bit of border got a few barrow-loads of organic matter and was replanted. The result was a revelation. My 'better' agapanthus turned into an absolute star. It is the most beautiful plant with huge, globular, pale blue blooms, each with a darker stripe. The plant could simply not believe its luck: it got the first feed in 20 years and lost most of its competition. You could almost see it breathing a sigh of relief.

There is a moral to this story. Meanness can go too far. Give the plant some organic mulch and you will sate its hunger and improve water-retention at the same time. Don't overcrowd with other plants - agapanthus don't like it. The books say to divide every six years at least but when I have tried this I find it sets the plants back a lot and you have to wait years for the return to former glories. My original clump has still not been divided after 25 years and is looking better than ever. If you must split the clump then you are always advised to do it in spring, but if your agapanthus has finished flowering well before the end of August then I think you could risk it, especially if it is in a pot and will get an extended season with cold greenhouse protection later.

There has been a spate of new cultivars to the market in recent years and some are more tender than others. If the origin of your plant is New Zealand then there is a bit of a question mark as to hardiness. 'Black Pantha' is one of these – planted last autumn (my first mistake) in a very well-drained, south-facing bed backed by a thick shrubbery but not given any protection to the crown (mistake number two). It had disappeared by the spring only to make a miraculous comeback by the end of June, long past all hope of revival. If I had waited till spring to get it established in the first season I might have done a lot better. On the other hand, 'Loch Hope' (AGM) planted at the same time, but in the south facing border next to the yew hedge, turned not a hair and produced three magnificent flower heads in its first season. This is a fine tall plant of mid-blue and has the merit of coming on to bloom about half-way through September – perhaps an AGM does mean something after all. A useful rule of thumb as to hardiness is that if the leaves are broader and want to be evergreen then the plant is likely to be less hardy. It probably has a lot of Agapanthus praecox ssp. orientalis in the blood – one of the most showy of the species with fine globular pale blue heads. Deciduous species tend to be hardier, especially the diminutive sorts like 'Lilliput' which I have had for years in a very exposed bed.

My records show that I have lost agapanthus before: 'New Blue', 'Timaru' and yes 'Black Pantha' again, all bit the dust. What infuriatingly maddening, drive-you-to-distraction, beautiful beasts.

First published in the Norfolk & Suffolk Group Newsletter, Autumn 2008
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 24
© Copyright for this article: Janet Sleep

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2009. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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