Agapanthus praecox subsp. praecox (African lily)
Plant image

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. Agapanthus praecox is the most commonly grown because it is not very fussy, always provides a wonderful show of flowers and has lush green foliage throughout the year. It is drought-hardy, frost-hardy and can grow in full sun to fairly deep shade.

Name & classification

Botanical name:
Agapanthus praecox subsp. praecox

Common names:
African lily, Common Agapanthus, Blue Lily, African hyacinth, Lily of the Nile (E)
Bloulelie, Agapant (A)
isiCakathi (X)
uBani (Z)

Plant family:
Agapanthaceae

Plant categories:
Non-herbaceous Perennials; Bulbs, Corms, Rhizomes or Tubers


Name derivation & history:
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'.

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.

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.

Pictures

Features

Leaf habit:
Evergreen

Height:
80 to 100cm

Width:
80cm

Plant shape:
Rhizomatous roots with strap-like leaves and an umbellate inflorescence on a stalk held above the leaves.

Leaf description:
The 10 to 11 leaves per individual plant are leathery and suberect (spreading rather than arching) and very variable. They may be narrow or broad, short or long and have blunt or pointed tips.

Spine or thorn description:

Flower description:
Flowers are open-faced and medium blue. The perianth segments are 50mm or longer.

Flower colour:
Medium blue

Flowering months:
December to February

Other distinctive features:
When flowers or leaves are cut, they exude a slimy substance.

Habitat

Natural distribution:
Eastern Cape

All agapanthus are endemic to southern Africa, i.e. occur naturally nowhere else on earth.

Water requirements:
Little water required, but does best with plenty of summer water

Frost tolerance:
Semi-hardy to hardy (tolerates a fair amount of frost)

Cold tolerance (°C):
-3

Light conditions:
Sun; semi-shade

Other Characteristics

Drought resistant
Wind resistant
Salt spray resistant
Has non-aggressive roots
Suitable for cut flowers
Suitable for growing in containers

Edibility & Toxicity

We have no confirmation that any part of this plant is edible
We have no confirmation that any part of this plant is toxic, however we urge caution as this information may be incorrect.

Ecology

Interaction with physical surroundings:
Attracts bees and butterflies to the flowers and the seeds are loved by birds.
Attracts birds
Attracts insects

Other information

Uses & Cultural aspects:
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.

Agapanthus praecox is also an excellent plant to use to stabilise a bank and to prevent erosion, and in difficult seaside gardens they stand up to the wind. It makes an excellent, long-lasting cut flower.

Cultivation:
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 and plenty of water in spring and summer. As with most plants they benefit most from a 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 a fair amount of frost.

Propagation is by seed or division. Because agapanthus plants hybridize freely with each other, 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 to 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 year.

Clumps are best lifted and divided just after the end of their flowering period in early March (late summer to autumn). Prize the rhizomes apart (not easy with large clumps) 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.

Similar species:
Agapanthus praecox subsp. praecox is distinguished from the other two subspecies by its longer perianth segments (50mm or longer) and fewer leaves (10-11 per plant) which are leathery and suberect (spreading rather than arching).

Pests & diseases:
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.

Notes:
The Agapanthaceae is a monotypic family (consists of only one genus). It is also 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. Form of A. praecox subsp.minimus, previously called A.comptoniicoddii, 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'.

References:
South African National Biodiversity Institute, South Africa.
Creative Gardening with Indigenous Plants - A South African Guide by Pitta Joffe - Briza Publications (2005)

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