Casual Gardener: An appreciation of Agapanthus

Agapanthus is one of many southern hemisphere plants that feel at home in Irish gardens. John Manley advises on the best conditions and varieties to maximise its potential

Agapanthus originates from southern Africa but is at home in Irish soil

SOUTH Africa has provided northern European gardeners with some of their best known and most loved perennials. Here in Ireland we may query the suggestion that our climate has much in common with the lands around the Cape of Good Hope, but the flora from this temperate region that have settled here may well beg to differ.

Kniphoifa – the red hot poker – has taken to Irish soils like the potato, blooming enthusiastically for much of the summer, even when the sunshine is in short supply.

Monbretia (Crocosmia) has arguably been the most successful import from South Africa, becoming a mainstay in gardens and colonising verges along the coast.

Agapanthus has been much less aggressive on its overseas adventures but appears very contented in Irish gardens, whether planted in a pot or in terra firma.

With their strappy leaves, upright stems and intensely-coloured, mostly blue flowers, they are suitable for both modern gardens with minimal, architectural planting, and more traditional borders.

Agapanthus translates as ‘love flower' but they're more commonly known as the African lily or lily of the Nile, the latter being about 3,500 miles out in terms of the plant's origin.

From the several species of agapanthus, all of which can be found in South Africa, there are two main types – evergreen and deciduous. The distinct category each plant falls into depends on which side of the Cape they originate.

Agapanthus africanus, for example, is a tender, evergreen variety. They are at home on the western Cape, where summers are dry and the winters moist.

Those from the colder eastern cape, such as Agapanthus campanulatus, tend to be deciduous, and do their growing over the wet summers (November to February).

Dying back over winter, they are more able to withstand frosts. Both types, however, need plenty of water in the first half of the growing season, while the deciduous varieties are a good choice for coastal gardens, withstanding strong winds and salty air.

Generally unfussy, but preferring well-drained sandy soil, agapanthus should be planted in full sun, mimicking the conditions of their homeland and maximising the uprightness of the stems and the brightness of the flowers.

Those with darker blooms, generally tend not to flower as profusely as their paler counterparts.

It can take a two-to-three years for a plant to establish itself and reach its full-flowering potential. During this period deciduous types should be mulched ahead of winter, providing both food and protection, while evergreen varieties will require a fleece coat for cold days and nights.

Agapanthus also make good potted plants but need regular watering if containerised. It's also recommended to pot on the plants every second year into something larger, splitting the rhizomes during dormancy when this becomes unfeasible.

Acclaimed varieties include the dazzling ‘Northern Star', a classic that boasts cobalt-blue flowers with lighter stripes on the outer petals. Its strong three-feet-long stems and neat foliage at the base have also drawn praise.

Agapanthus ‘Sky' has unconventionally eye-catching lilac blue flowers atop pale green foliage, while the beguiling deep blue of the aptly-named ‘Midnight Star' is hard to pass.

For white flowered variety, try ‘Artic Star', whose only drawback is its relatively short flowering period.

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