Agapanthus -the blue (and white) stars of our summer roadsides

Our summer roadsides would be the poorer without agapanthus

Our summer roadsides would be the poorer without agapanthus

We have a bit of a love-hate relationship with agapanthus here in Taranaki and in warmer areas of this country. But as you drive around the countryside at this time of the year, most would agree that our roadsides would be the poorer if they were gone. They resemble giant blue harebells growing, well, growing pretty well everywhere if we are honest.

Agapanthus all come from South Africa and from relatively limited areas of that country. Don’t be misled by the common international name, the Lily of the Nile. They are neither a member of the lily family, nor do they grow anywhere near the Nile. Nor does Agapanthus orientalis come from the Orient. That descriptor merely means eastern, so the natural habitat of A. orientalis (probably more correctly known as A. praecox ssp orientalis) should be on the eastern side of South Africa, assuming the original plant collections and recording was done accurately.

The name comes from Greek. Agape is love and anthos is flower but whether this means the flower of love or lovely flower is unclear.

So are they a weed? These matters are rarely as black and white as they appear. On the debit side:
• Most agapanthus set seed freely and the seed germinates readily.
• Agapanthus grow well in a wide range of situations including inhospitable clay banks and shaded areas. They form a dense cover which prevents other plants from germinating – particularly desirable native regeneration. They have the potential to colonise bush reserves, national parks and native bush.
• The common agapanthus are resistant to the world’s handiest weedkiller, glyphosate (formerly known by its original brand name: Round Up). While you can take them out with stronger brush killer sprays, most of these require you to hold a spray licence.
• Digging out well established clumps takes quite some physical strength and determination because the plants cling on for grim death and the clumps can be formidable. Because they have roots which are rhizomes, if you don’t get the whole plant out, what is left behind in the soil will re-grow.
• There is no way this plant would ever be permitted into the country now. Mind you, the same thing could be said about kiwifruit.

There is a credit side and a degree of resigned acceptance by the authorities in this country which sees agapanthus treated as a surveillance pest plant rather than the hard line decision to ban it outright.
• While it seeds freely, the seeds are not dispersed by birds at all so in most cases, the seedlings pop up close to the parent plants. The big problem comes with plants beside waterways because the water can do a very efficient job of spreading them much further.
• They are a significant plant for cut flower producers and there are dwarf and sterile forms available for home gardeners which pose no threat at all. There is a large international market and agapanthus occupy an established niche in our nursery industry. Many of the named hybrids have parentage which includes one or more of the species other than praecox and this reduces the weed problems.
• They make a significant contribution to our summer landscape as a flowering plant and will tolerate harsh, roadside conditions so are favoured for amenity plantings.
• They are evergreen, tidy and suitable for using to stabilise slip-prone areas.

Basically Biosecurity and most northern regional councils would love to ban it outright but pragmatism triumphs so the aggie lives on to flower another day. Auckland has banned the larger growing forms of A.praecox (the common form), still allowing the production and sale of dwarf forms as a compromise position. The sensible position for the home gardener who lives adjacent to native forest or to waterways, would be to remove them entirely. As a back-up position, being industrious and thorough about dead heading would reduce the problem. For the rest of us, it probably doesn’t matter and they make a huge contribution to our summer gardens and landscape.

Agapanthus Tinkerbell - no weed potential here

Agapanthus Tinkerbell - no weed potential here

By no means are all agapanthus thugs. Little Tinkerbell is common in gardens though probably more noted for its very clean white and sage green variegated foliage than its flowers. It is distinctly shy on flowering, as a rule. It also has a significantly large root system for a plant without a great deal on top but it is a useful addition in the garden border. Other named hybrids are often more amenable than thuggish and have their place in the garden setting.

This is a plant family which is a great deal more highly prized overseas than here. In harsher climates, stronger growing plants are valued for their ability to survive the conditions and most of Europe and the US have much harder conditions than we have. Toughies that stay in leaf as well as put on a lovely summer flowering display are harder to come by, especially in blue. Because they don’t tolerate extremely cold conditions, additional measures are often required to get the common agapanthus through winter.

But in this country, you can’t even give away common agapanthus. Which is why we were genuinely shocked by a section in “A Green Granny’s Garden”, by Fionna Hill. I reviewed this before Christmas and I have to admit I did not read it cover to cover or that review might have been a little tougher had I come across the following paragraph referencing her attendance at a Hollard Gardens’ workshop here in Taranaki:
“Workshop participants have been invited to bring seed and other plant material to share. We pulled lots of agapanthus plants from Maggie’s New Plymouth garden that day and (we thought) cheekily we’d take the opportunity to leave a wheelbarrowful. We give the barrow to some helpful children to wheel back to the meeting shed, while we speed off down the road. I think it might not have been welcome, at that time, believing them to be a pest.” (sic). The page of self justification that follows does not mitigate the action for anybody except the author, who concludes: “I shouldn’t feel so guilty about that wheelbarrowful that Maggie and I have left as a contribution – at UK rates, the barrowful was worth about 300 pounds.” I don’t think so, dear. What you did was to furtively leave your friend’s weeds for Hollards’ staff to dispose of. You should be feeling guilty and embarrassed.