Updated: Jul 21
If you are in the California landscape industry, you know that Agapanthus is a workhorse in commercial landscapes. Who has not seen this prolific bloomer thriving in nondescript planters sandwiched between parked cars, flanking entry walkways, or dotted throughout street medians as cars whiz by? If designers are not specifying them on their plans, they may still find their way into landscapes later on, when owners decide they want something that is low maintenance yet blooms prolifically.
Most of the time, Lily-of-the-Nile can be ignored, and it often is. In summer, when the sky blue blooms appear, someone might notice, but only if they are en massse. Individual plants can get lost, even when in bloom, since the flower color tends to recede. To stand out in the plant world, A. praecox ssp. orientalis has some of the largest blooms in the genus, but they still need to be clustered to make a statement. Today, there are numerous cultivars hybridized for their unique colors and sizes, from white to almost purple-black, and dwarfs to blooms that can stand 5' tall at their peak. Placed in the right situation, they can stand out in a crowd...but make sure the project owner is okay with something considered common.
Its name presents a bit of a conundrum, easily leading to confusion. "Orientalis," a subspecies of A. praecox, refers to Asia, or the Orient, implying some connection to the East. Last I check, South Africa, where this plant originates, is not even a stone's throw from Asian borders. Similarly, its common name, Lily-of-the-Nile, implies a proximity to central and north Africa if we follow the grand river. Closer, but skipping stones down the Nile, not a chance. To confuse matters further, nurseries have had a tendency to sell it under another name, Agapanthus africanus, which according to the South African National Biodiversity Institute, or SANBI, is too difficult to grow and needs very specific conditions to thrive.
SANBI also notes that A. praecox has a lot of diversity within itself (hence the need for subspecies, or ssp.). Combined with numerous hybridized additions, confusion can lead to a collection of mixed plants that may or may not be correctly labeled in the nurseries. Another example of why designers will be well served by visiting the nurseries when plants are in bloom, tag the desired plants for their projects, and be more assured their project receives the desired colors and sizes. Any-who, we accept its name, and we have certainly embraced its residency in California landscapes.
West Valley College Campus Location: Agapanthus praecox ssp. orientalis
Cilker Building (west facing)
Long: 122° 0'41.48"W
Botanical Name: Agapanthus praecox ssp. orientalis
Agapanthus: Greek, agape for love; anthos, flower, but specific reasoning is unclear. Did the botanist who named it thought the flowers were lovely? Does the flower mean love? If I learn the answer, I will certainly share it.
Praecox: Meaning very early, probably in reference to its bloom period
Orientalis: Orient or eastern
Common Name: Lily-of-the-Nile
Family Name: Amaryllidaceae, subfamily: Agapanthaceae
Origin: South Africa
Positioning: Mid-border (large specimens), foreground (dwarf specimens), spaces vulnerable to neglect or minimal maintenance, embankments
Garden Themes: Mediterranean/dry, coastal, sub-tropical/tropical, courtyard, cutting, rock
Uses: Cut flower, perennial border, mass, container, hummingbirds, slope stabilization
Type: Evergreen perennial; rhizomatous
Form: Spiky, arching
Size: 1.5' tall (without bloom stalks) and spreading
Outstanding Feature(s): Flower, tolerances
Color: Light to medium green
Surface: Smooth, glossy
Flower: Summer into Autumn. Light blue (cultivars are white to deep purple-black) tubular in showy umbel
Fruit: Autumn. Medium green 3-sided capsule. Can be showy and attractive in floral arrangements.
cultural requirements, tolerances & problems
Sunset Zones: 6-9 12-24; H1, H2
USDA Zones: 8-11
Light: Full sun to partial shade
WUCOLS SF Bay Area Hydro Zone: Moderate
Texture: Sand, loam, well composted and well-drained
Moisture Retention: Accepts periods of dryness
Tolerances: Drought, heat, deer, poorer soils
Problems: Slow plant spread may become a nuisance for maintenance; leaf dieback in hard frosts; safe haven for snails
Branch Strength: N/A
Insects: Red spider mites, thrips, mealy bugs
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.
Agapanthus is suspected of causing haemolytic poisoning in humans, and the sap causes severe ulceration of the mouth.
~ South African National Biodiversity Institute
citations & attributions
Norris Brenzel, K. (Ed.). (2012). The New Sunset Western Garden Book. New York: Time Home Entertainment, Inc.
NC State Extension. "Agapanthus praecox ssp. orientalis." North Carolina State University, Raleigh. Accessed on July 15, 2021, from https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/agapanthus-praecox-ssp-orientalis/.
PlantZAfrica. "Agapanthus praecox." South African National Biodiversity Institute. Accessed on July 15, 2021, from http://pza.sanbi.org/agapanthus-praecox.
Water Use Classification of Landscape Species. "WUCOLS IV Plant List." University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Davis. Accessed on June 28, 2021.
All photos by TELCS.