The usually blue-flowered Agapanthus brightens South African gardens, and many gardens around the world, during the summer. It is an easy-going plant that I pretty much take for granted, so I was surprised to find that its classification has been a complex issue for botanists.

Commonly, it is referred to as a lily, and it was first classed, botanically speaking, as a lily. That was back in the 1700s when Parisian botanist L’Héritier established the genus in 1788 (in the year prior to the commencement of the French Revolution I was interested to note!). The samples taken to Europe were collected in South Africa – all wild Agapanthus species are native to southern Africa.

Agapanthus praecox flower in bud

An Agapanthus flower head erupting after the calyx has split and peeled back to reveal the buds emerging from within

The taxonomically vagrant Agapanthus moved from the lily family to the amaryllis family to the onion family and back to the amaryllis family, and now it resides as the only genus in its own family: Agapanthaceae. Even the number of species, all endemic to South Africa as mentioned, has been subject to debate and change, but after revised analysis that included DNA testing, the number of species has been reduced from ten to six species: two evergreen and four deciduous.

Budding flower head of Agapanthus praecox

As the flower head extends and the buds swell the blue coloration becomes more apparent

In South Africa the plant is commonly referred to as, well, the agapanthus, but elsewhere, in English at least, it has been or is known as the African hayacinth, the African lily and even the Lily of the Nile, although it occured naturally nowhere near the Nile. The agapanthus hybridises easily, even in the wild, and these days there are about 600 hybrids and cultivars available across the world. In some countries, such as in Australia, it has naturalised and has become something of a pest displacing native plants in some regions.

Flowers and strap leaves of Agapanthis praecox

An agapanthus in flower in a patch of sunshine near a birdbath in our garden, showing off its long strap-like leaves 

Given that the agapanthus has achieved such worldwide popularity and is so widely loved, it turns out to be well named; the name is derived from the Greek agapé meaning love, and anthos meaning flower.

Agapanthus praecox in full bloom

An agapanthus in full bloom in our garden

The commonest agapanthus plants grown in gardens in South Africa and around the world are hybrids and cultivars of the evergreen species Agapanthus praecox.

Close-up of flower and stamens of Agapanthis praecox, South Africa

The flowers on one flower head, bud, open or wither at slightly different times, prolonging the flowering time

Agapanthus plant species are used in traditional medicine in South Africa. Preparations from the roots are used as an ante-natal medicine and to induce labour and to assist contractions in difficult births. Other medicinal uses include treating cradle-cap and as a tonic for babies, treating chest and heart conditions, and as an aphrodisiac. Protective charms for health and good luck are also prepared from the plant.  

Although parts of the plants contain substances that are toxic to humans, some of the phytochemicals in agapanthus species that have been identified may have anti-inflammatory and imuno-regulatory properties and may assist in treating coughs, fluid retention and uterine health.

Honeybee seeking nectar at agapanthus flower

Honeybees and other pollinators are attracted to agapanthus flowers. This hovering honeybee’s wings are fluttering so fast they are not visible to the camera. However, the purple of the pollen in the legs sacs is clear to see

Raindrops on agapanthus flowers

Raindrops still cling to the flowers in the early morning sun

A stand of agapanthus in flower in a KwaZulu-Natal garden

A small stand of tall agapanthus flowers in our garden

Agapanthus plants can form dense colonies, which can be lifted and split every few years. Often they are used for mass plantings, but I prefer to mix agapanthus plants in more diverse plantings that are more interesting to the eye, more natural and sustain a greater variety of life. Some of the dwarf varieties of agapanthus are successfully grown as pot plants.

Agapanthus praecox gone to seed

Decorating our garden in early winter are the interesting seed heads of the agapanthus plants

Although it is conventional to cut off the heads of agapanthus flowers once they have finished flowering, I like to leave them to go to seed. They are most decorative and once they are thoroughly dry they make helpful fire lighters!

Seeds of the Agapanthus praecox

The seeds of the agapanthus are dispersed by the wind

In our garden I have not seen any seedlings taking root, nor have I noticed anything eating the seeds, so perhaps the role the seed heads play in our garden is largely decorative – to my eyes at least.

Raindrops glisten on the flowers of an Agapanthus praecox (African lily)


Notten, A. 2004. Agapanthus praecox. SANBI.; Pooley, E. 1998. A Field Guide to Wild Flowers of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Region. Durban: Natal Flora Publications Trust; Van Wyk, B. & Gericke, N. 2007. People’s Plants: A Guide to Useful Plants of Southern Africa.  Pretoria: Briza. 

Posted by Carol

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