Tag Archives: agapanthus

A moderately controversial opinion, in New Zealand at least

The convolvulus is potentially a bigger problem than the agapanthus

We like roadside agapanthus in our area. The sight of blue and white in abundance is a summer pleasure. It has become one of our wildflowers.

Why controversial? I have watched comments on Twitter in recent weeks, railing against the horrors of agapanthus and what a ghastly plant and flower it is. This happens every summer. One tweeter even declared that ‘nobody born after 1972 can bear agapanthus’. At least, I think it was 1972, or thereabouts – presumably the birth year of the tweeter. Reader, I was born somewhat before 1972 and it felt like an ageist attack.

                I grow old

                I grow old

                I shall watch my agapanthus blooms unfold

I get that some people don’t like agapanthus and that it isn’t the world’s greatest plant to inherit en masse in a garden. What I don’t understand is the level of visceral hostility, the intensity of emotion expended on a plant that is moderately benign and consistently blooms in summer. I don’t engage in these Twitter diatribes but I did want to ask what they would prefer to see – mown or sprayed roadsides bereft of flowering weeds? Did they think agapanthus worse than convolvulus, montbretia, woolly nightshade, fennel, chicory, kniphofia, hydrangeas, canna lilies, pampas grass or many other plants that escaped onto our roadsides? Why single out agapanthus?

These plants are likely to stay on the roadside, rather than moving across the fence onto farmland

Given the huge amount of agapanthus we have naturalised in our area, I can say that I have not seen it invading farmland. It is not like pampas, woolly nightshade or montbretia which will colonise new territory the moment your back is turned. Because the seed is so large, it doesn’t spread itself around on wind and does not appear to be spread by birds. Nor does it spread below ground so it doesn’t tick the invasive boxes in our book. It increases from the base rhizomes and by seed but the heavy seed drops near the plant. It can be spread by water so maybe take care and eliminate by waterways and drains if you are worried about spreading it further. We get out and deadhead our roadside agapanthus.

Agapanthus used to be promoted because it is such an easy-going plant, tolerant of full sun and shade and it is useful in retaining loose soils on banks which could slip if left bare. It is not caustic and it is pest-free. It isn’t an exciting plant when not in flower, but I welcome that expanse of blue and white blooms in summer. I guess it is that very adaptability that has made it a pariah, a noxious weed, some declare, that needs to banned, NZ’s worst weed, even, in some eyes.

Showing my age, apparently, I have agapanthus in the garden

I like it enough to have selected a good dark blue form from the roadside which I brought into an area of the summer gardens where tree roots made the ground somewhat inhospitable for choicer perennials. After all, I was born before 1972. I deadhead after flowering before the seed has ripened, putting the spent flower heads in deep shade (not the compost heap) and we root prune the clumps in winter to stop them getting too large. But then, I also like wild fennel enough to have used that in the summer borders, too.

If you do happen to have giant clumps in your garden that you want to get rid of, you need to understand that it is immune to the common herbicides you can buy over the counter. It is most likely you will need to dig it out but don’t make the mistake of trying to dig it all out in a massive clump. First sharpen your spade. A sharp edge makes a huge difference. Then start slicing through the clump from the outside, removing it in manageable pieces. It is not deep rooted and the base of the clump (the rhizome) and the roots are fleshy, so easy to slice.

Don’t put the bits straight on the compost heap because most will grow again. Cut the leaves off – those can be composted. If you are doing it in high summer – like now – turn the remains of the clump – all the white bits – upside down on a dry surface so the roots face the sun and dry out. In cooler months you can stow it under cover so it dries or pile it in a black bin bag and lie that on concrete in the sun so it heats up and composts.  I have taken all of the above steps and it is not that hard.

Mark has just suggested that he thinks you could get away with slicing it off right at ground level (the rhizomes are usually sitting above the ground) and leaving the roots behind. It is not like alstromeria, tradescantia or montbretia where every piece left behind will grow again. We haven’t tried this approach but if you want to, you may be able to achieve agapanthus elimination with a heavy knife or meat cleaver. Just go back and check from time to time that nothing is sprouting afresh.

We rate the montbretia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora) as a worse weed than the agapanthus. It is certainly harder to control, let alone eradicate and it spreads like wildfire

There are many worse plants to eliminate than agapanthus but we are happy to stick with the plants we have and just keep them under control.

Along the verges – midsummer on North Taranaki roadsides

Blue hydrangeas – a common roadside plant

We are very blue along our Taranaki roadsides in midsummer. I meant to get out with my camera a few weeks ago to record the roadside hydrangeas flowering in our area. Many are now passing over so I had to make do with the verge planted by our neighbour across the road. It has been bringing me pleasure for many weeks now.

Basically, hydrangeas are blue in Taranaki. This is to do with available aluminium in our acid soils.  In our warm, temperate climate with adequate summer rain, they can just be planted and left. The many, many roadside hydrangeas will have been planted originally (seeding is minimal) and then left to their own devices. I don’t think anyone ever prunes them. This means that they are generally smothered with smaller flower heads. Pruning controls the size of the shrub and increases the flower size but lessens the number of blooms. Plants can survive quite happily with no pruning at all.

Weed or common wildflower? Agapanthus

It is the season of agapanthus. They are EVERYWHERE in this area, although they generally start from a deliberate planting and they are most often seen as amenity, road verge plantings rather than garden plants. They are controversial here on account of their seeding ways and the fact that they are resistant to the most common weed killer. But our roadsides would be so much the poorer without them.

Thumbs down to woolly nightshade

My definition of a noxious weed is a plant that invades and displaces more desirable native plants and I don’t think the roadside agapanthus are displacing anything more desirable. The seed is not spread by birds and generally falls close to the parent plant so is localised. I would be far more worried about woolly nightshade – Solanum mauritianum – than about agapanthus. It has no redeeming features and is highly invasive. Curiously, by this plant, I saw a small plant of Verbena bonariensis on the verge. As it is at least two kilometres from my garden where it is flowering, I don’t think I am responsible for this plant making its way to the wild. Most of our wildflowers start as garden escapes and this verbena is so light and airy in form, while being popular with bees and butterflies, that I am not convinced that it is going to be a problem in the comparative wasteland of road verges.

Chicory – not as common as I would like it to be

Chicory is another pretty blue that I wouldn’t mind making its home around here. It is a member of the dandelion family and is also used as stock food overseas so I can’t think it would do much harm here. I found this one growing on railway land when I stopped to photograph the red hot pokers.

Kniphofia in Lepperton

Like the hydrangeas, kniphofia generally start from a deliberate planting. Though some forms seed more freely than others in a garden situation, I have never seen them as a weed when on road verges. I once wrote about them – if you want to know why Father was a red hot poker and Mother was a blushing violet. I liked this scene of kniphofia and an old gateway between the state highway and the railway line in Lepperton this week.

Crocosmia – commonly referred to as montbretia

I wrote about crocosmia in my earlier post today. If we are not blue, we are carpets of red around here – or sometimes blue and red. They are just too happy in our conditions though they do look very pretty interspersed with the long grasses on some road verges.

Common fennel

Into the yellows, we have fennel, fennel and more fennel all around the district. I really like it, so much so that I have used it in the summer borders. I like the airy grace of those yellow umbellifers and the fine, ferny foliage. The insects like them too. There is a bronze form more commonly used as an ornamental but I am not willing to spend money buying a fennel and nobody has given it to me yet.

Evening primrose

I am also fond of the wild evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) which is common enough here and certainly common in wilder areas of our property. It doesn’t seem to do any harm and the bees like it.

Thumbs down, also, to convolvulus

Not all of our wild flowers are desirable. Mark keeps out the convolvulus, be it pink or white, though there is so much of it around, I can only conclude that others are less vigilant. It is a smothering plant, hellishly difficult to eradicate once it gets a foothold. This one is climbing up the Bertram Road swing bridge over the Waitara River but will very soon dominate the whole bank and bridge if not kept under control or taken out.

The wasteland of the sprayed road verge

Not all of our wildflowers are noxious weeds. But neither are all of the weeds wildflowers worth tolerating. On the other hand, is there anything much worse than this sprayed wasteland of a road verge? A practice that remains common around here.

Agapanthus a-plenty 

And sometimes agapanthus and crocosmia – one starting from a deliberate planting, the other entirely self-introduced

On the verges

Agapanthus with the dreaded convolvus - the latter is pretty in flower but we do not need it

Agapanthus with the dreaded convolvus – the latter is pretty in flower but we do not need it

As you drive around the countryside in January, ponder this: does a sprayed roadside with dead grass and roadside litter look better than wildflowers? And are garden escapes (which takes in most roadside plants and flowers) environmentally worse than repeated application of weedkiller? Maybe it is time we reviewed our attitude to weeds.

It is often said that a weed is simply a plant in the wrong place, though I see Sara Stein is attributed with the extended statement, “A weed is a plant that is not only in the wrong place, but intends to stay.” After all, even weeds are native to somewhere and one country’s treasure can be another country’s problem.

Toetoe beside the new Waikato expressway

Toetoe beside the new Waikato expressway

A disclaimer first: our native bush and forest are precious and vulnerable to takeover by invasive and aggressive imports. We do not need another old man’s beard (Clematis vitalba) and perish the thought that Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) ever gets a major foothold here. If you are lucky enough to live adjacent to near-pristine native bush, that brings an obligation to be very careful with what escapes your property and colonises roadsides. It also behoves us all to have some awareness of what is on our Regional Council banned and watch lists.

But most of us live in heavily modified environments and I suspect a preference for weedkiller over wildflowers arose from our farming heritage and feeling of obligation that “weeds” should not be permitted to invade precious farmland. Nowadays, when farming has become much more industrialised – a green desert, often, lacking even shelter belts – based entirely on imported grass and feed species, I don’t think that argument holds.

The ugliness of the sprayed  verge

The ugliness of the sprayed verge

Each time we visit Britain, we are entranced by their hedgerows and natural roadside vegetation. Apparently, after major clearance in decades past, there came an awareness that hedgerows contribute a great deal to the eco-system and grants were made available to reinstate them. There is not widespread mowing of road verges, let alone the ugliness of spraying. Would that we had such an enlightened attitude here. In vain do we protest that repeated spraying creates a vacuum into which unwanted weeds move first (notably the invasive, yellow bristle grass in Tikorangi), but it also prevents the ground from absorbing rainfall. Instead, the surface water is funnelled down drainage ditches, washing with it weed spray and any petrol residue from the road into waterways. How much better to have a growing roadside which filters the run-off?

Crocosmia - weed or woldflower?

Crocosmia – weed or woldflower?

Roadside vegetation is more interesting visually too, offering flowers and seasonal colour. Add to that a wildlife corridor role and we argue that they can make a significant contribution to a healthy environment. If you are worried about using imported ornamentals, you can encourage native re-vegetation. The native plantings alongside the new Waikato Expressway feature an abundance of toetoe which is wonderfully sculptural and interesting, especially silhouetted against the sky.

But we like the random mix of plants and colours we see. I look for the point where wild hydrangeas on the Otorohanga bypass change from blue tones to pink tones. I guess that marks the transition to limestone country. All our hydrangeas in Taranaki are blue as blue and they thrive on roadsides in a climate where we get summer rainfall.

005The white Japanese anemones that flower in the long grass around the country corner where we live make me smile every autumn. Orange-red crocosmia – earlier referred to as montbretia – feature large around here. So too do red hot pokers, fennel, arum lilies and cannas while further north the ox-eye daises, yellow vetch and wild carrot feature more.

012And agapanthus. There is a plant that is a great deal more revered overseas than here. It is controversial, actively discouraged and some forms banned in northern regions. Some folk hate it with a passion and it cannot be sprayed out with glyphosate. But truly, our roadsides round here would be the poorer without the summer display. In its defence, we have not seen this tough plant seed down any great distance from its parent in our conditions and it is also very good at stabilising clay banks.

I recall two English garden visitors a few years ago who asked what were the “giant bluebell and what looks like a lace-cap yellow hydrangea” flowering on all our roadsides. The yellow lace-cap was fennel but the giant bluebell had me absolutely stumped until I next drove out. It immediately dawned on me that they were referring to agapanthus. It is not cold-hardy in large parts of Europe and the UK and is a prized garden plant. No wonder they failed to identify it growing wild in abundance here.

abbie 20 10 2015 copy

Fennel, not lace cap hydrangea

Fennel, not lace cap hydrangea

First published in the January issue of New Zealand Gardener. 

Garden lore: The Agapanthus Conundrum

???????????????????????????????Overseas gardeners find our attitude to agapanthus perplexing. These plants are much more prized elsewhere, whereas we largely consign them to roadsides. It is much rarer to see them used as garden plants in New Zealand, even though there are some very good named cultivars which are sterile, so don’t set seed. Their future is sometimes under threat as they are seen by some to be noxious weeds. And they are very difficult to get rid of if you no longer want them.

But I think our summer roadsides would be dull without them. While they set prodigious amounts of seed, these do not appear to spread far and certainly the birds are not expanding the range. But such is the concern, that we try and get round to removing the spent flower heads and we feel obliged to stop them from encroaching on the neighbours’ boundaries.

???????????????????????????????This leaves the problem of what do with the seed heads. While we make a hot compost mix, it is not always hot enough to destroy viable seed. In the past, I have been guilty of putting seed and noxious weeds out for rubbish collection but we now think that sending even very limited amounts of green waste to landfill is not justifiable.

This year Mark has set up large barrels into which unwanted seeds and bulbs are put to soak in water until they rot down. It would give a valuable liquid fertiliser but liquid feed has not been part of our routine so it is more likely to all end up in the compost heap eventually. Allow at least a month for the rotting process to take place.

If you want to get rid of clumps of agapanthus, most people will have to get digging. The most common weedkiller, glyphosate (Round Up) is largely ineffective. To spray, you have to resort to heavier duty, controlled brush killers like Grazon and few people have access to these. It may be the difficulty of eradicating existing plants that puts most people off the plant, more than their seeding ways.

Blue sky gardening rather than feeling blue

Weeds maybe, but pretty on summer roadsides - agapanthus

Weeds maybe, but pretty on summer roadsides – agapanthus

There I was, having decided to write about blue flowers this week, when I opened the latest issue of NZ Gardener and Lynda Hallinan had beaten me to it. But that’s all right. She was mainly looking at annuals with just a few perennials and one shrub.

It is the sight of the blue jacaranda in full flower which makes me fall in love with blue blooms all over again. It is the first thing I see out the window every morning and I sit and drink my early morning tea admiring it and reflecting on how much I love the colour.

Where we live, blue is the dominant colour of the roadside flowers in summer. I know agapanthus is a weed and difficult to eradicate but our verges would be the poorer for its absence. Plants have to be tough in that situation and the agapanthus is a showy survivor. Beacons of summer, here.

The simplicity of chicory

The simplicity of chicory

The wild chicory is pretty as a picture with its soft blue daisies. In the garden we grow blue asters with a similar flower but in long grass, the simplicity of the chicory is more fitting.

We are blue hydrangea territory, being acidic in soils. With regular summer rain and mild, humid conditions, the blocks of blue flowered hydrangeas tend to mean we take this plant for granted. Go to more alkaline territory and they turn pink as readers may have noticed in other areas, but they add to our blue palette here. As we fluff around our garden hydrangeas, pruning each year to tidy them up and promote good flowering, it is interesting to reflect that those roadside wildflowers are never touched yet bloom faithfully. As a general rule, if you don’t prune a hydrangea, you get more flowers but they are smaller.

Impressed by the garden performance of the You-Me hydrangea series

Impressed by the garden performance of the You-Me hydrangea series

When it comes to the garden, those big blue moptop hydrangeas (the macrophyllas) are okay as a backdrop but they lack refinement as garden plants. We have been most impressed with the more delicate appearance of the recent introductions from Japan in the You-Me series. We collected several from hydrangea expert Glyn Church a few years ago and have lost the names but they are all quite similar so I’m not sure that any one is better than the others. Look for them branded under the You-Me group and they carry individual names like “Forever” and “Eternity”. If you can’t find them in your local garden centre, then you can get them on line from Woodleigh Nursery. Be warned, however, that they are apparently not colour stable so if your soils are more alkaline, they won’t be the pretty blues we have here. Presumably they will be pretty pinks instead.

What is it about blue? For me, I think it is that the blue as blue skies are such a mood enhancer. It may have something to do with the dreaded holes in the ozone layer (though I hope it has more to do with our isolation and low population) but we have a clarity and intensity of light in this country that most of us take for granted until we travel overseas.

I have commented before on the fact that we treat green as colour neutral in the garden. All those monochromatic garden schemes are in fact bichromatic because they are one colour plus green.

Nigella damascena - a personal favourite

Nigella damascena – a personal favourite

Blue is not colour neutral as such, but it sits happily in any colour combination. So if your garden bed is hot colours of reds, yellows and oranges, blue will sit in that mix quite happily. In you have gone instead for pretty pastel pinks and whites, blue does not shout when included. Of the primary colours, it is the easiest to blend. It can lift a tightly controlled, colour managed garden out of the blandness that sometimes afflicts them, by adding just a little zing.

I don’t understand why “feeling blue” is a reference to feeling sad. In my books, you can never have too much blue in a garden and lifting one’s eyes to the blue sky above is a celebration of life.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.