The Plant For The Victorian Romantic In All of Us
The Lily of the Nile makes a striking mass planting, an accent near your house, and edging or a groundcover. Here’s how to grow it. Blossoms of this plant will attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees. It makes a great container plant, and you can grow it as a house plant indoors. This beauty grows well with its roots close together. That means it can stay several years in the same pot. Agapanthus, despite its notable style, is not labor-intensive.
What Is The Lily of The Nile? How Can I Grow It?
Be of Good Hope. That’s where the Agapanthus came from. Its origins are on the cliffs of South Africa overlooking the Cape of Good Hope; Agapanthus has good wind resistance, loves good drainage, and is not fussy about soil.
Round globes (umbels) of flowers stand 2′-5′ above the rest of the garden. Its curved strap-like leaves form a soft, mounding ground cover even when not in bloom.
The flower colors are varied shades of blue, white, purple, and some blends. The foliage, about 12″ long, is green and occasionally variegated, sometimes with silver edges.
Is The Lily Of The Nile A Lily?
Well, there is a lot of debate about the genus Agapanthus. Classified initially (in 1788) in the Liliaceae family, it has changed positions several times. Now it lives in the Amaryllidaceae family, where it lives as the only genus in the subfamily Agapanthoideae.
Where To Plant Agapanthus
Anywhere, if you like it as a house plant or lift the bulbs to store over the winter, outdoors, its hardiness range is zone 6-11, depending on the variety.
The two things about Agapanthus to always keep in mind are:
- Soil with superior drainage.
- Plant the tubers close together.
Plant in full sun in northern locations, and partial shade in tropical areas. Plant in amended soil that is moist but well-drained.
It is a popular plant in warmer, coastal areas as it is wind resistant. We live in a coastal town and do not see any salt sensitivity. Our South Florida town uses agapanthus in highway medians.
There are both evergreen and deciduous varieties. The evergreen types will be more tender, deciduous, and more resistant to cold. Ask your dealer which variety they are offering. Hint: the evergreen variety have wider leaves.
What Agapanthus Colors Are Available?
- Blue, this is by far the most common color, and the range of shades is broad; you can find plants blooming in pale to very dark blue, some of which appear purple and almost black.
- White agapanthus are very effective ways to brighten a color garden or a moon garden.
- There are also a good variety of bicolor plants in blue and white combinations.
Sizes Of Agapanthus
Dwarf varieties are as small as 20″. The largest can reach 6′. Check this list of plants for something to suit your garden.
Varieties Of Agapanthus To Grow
- Albus- white
- Angela-lavender, 4′ tall, midsummer blooms, pairs well with pink
- Baby Pete-A. Praecox ssp. orientalis “Benfran”
- Black Panther- A. praecox var. orientalis, Bulbs start, shiny black, turn deep purple. Evergreen 1-3′ tall. We saw this in Hawaii; very dramatic!
- Blue Heaven-Makes a great cut flower, 3’x3′, true baby blue. Rated hardy in zone 7-11, it reblooms, mid-summer, then fall.
- Blue Ice-large pale blue flowers, and evergreen leaves have a purple base.
- Blue Leap-rich blue flower heads are huge and the stems sturdy, on the hardy edge.
- Blue Yonder-Bright, purple-blue. 2-3′ tall. Zone 8, evergreen, zone 6-7 deciduous.
- Brilliant Blue-Deciduous, ocean blue, 2′ tall. Hardy to zone 6. Sized for containers.
- Double Diamond-White, a dwarf, double.
- Ever Amythest- True amethyst color. You can garden in your jewelry and match! (The “Ever” series are developed in South Africa.) Reblooms, with long bloom season and used as a cut flower. Semi-evergreen, zone 8-11, pest resistant.
- Ever Midnight-Really midnight blue, 3’x2′. Zone 8-11, try it with white.
- Ever Sapphire-A bright blue, evergreen, that blooms spring to summer. Hardy in zone 8-11. (You will need to change your jewelry!)
- Ever Twilight-Big blooms. White with a purple throat. Semi-dwarf, hardy to zones 8-11. Compared to Queen Mum
- Ever White- Semi-dwarf, 1′-2′ tall. This is a source of true snowy white.
- Flore Pleno, double
- Galaxy Blue-Periwinkle blue with a stripe down the middle of each petal. Big, 3’x2′. Deciduous and Hardy to zone 6, reblooms all summer.
- Golden Drop-Variegated foliage, evergreen leaves are green in the middle with yellow on the outside. Soft blue flowers are hardy in zone 7-11.
- Little Blue Fountain-Brilliant blue flowers, evergreen foliage, semi-dwarf, size 1-2′ high and wide.
- Loch Hope-A blue, so bright that it is recommended to use with orange. A Royal Horticultural Society Award of Merit winner. Deciduous, hardy to zone 6, big, 4’5 tall x 2’wide. In bloom from mid to late summer.
- Margaret-Bright medium blue with a darker stripe down the petals. Glossy leaves, hardy to zone 7, mid to late summer blooms.
- Midknight Blue
- Midnight Dream-The slightly drooping flowers are in a rich purple shade. The plant is narrower than some at 3′ tall and 1.5′ wide; the foliage is strap-shaped and deciduous in zone 6-7. In warmer climates, it may be evergreen.
- Mood Indigo-Drama and lots of it! Deep violet flower balls hold up to 100 individual flowers each. 2-3′ tall plants. For zone 7-9, developed at the Los Angeles County Arboretum.
- Neverland-a dwarf cultivar, the flowers are sky blue and rise only 1′ high and wide. The foliage is yellowish in color. I guess you won’t grow up with this one around.
- Northern Star-With star-shaped flowers it is a bit of an “un agapanthus.” It is not globular at all. Hardy to zones 6, it reaches 3’x2′ .
- Queen Mum-very large, white globes with purple/lavender throats. . They have a real sparkle. (If you want more information, ook on Youtube for an agapanthus video by British Gardener Sarah Raven. It is hardy to zone 8. Not for a cold climate, unless you bring in the plant.
- Peter Pan-Agapanthus africanus, dwarf variety to 18″ tall, it has deep blue flower clusters. ( It is described as a “neat” plant that will not make a mess near the swimming pool*)
- Silver Baby-White with subtle blue tinge at flower edge. Dwarf variety blooms in spring and summer. Hardy to zone 6, where it is deciduous; in zone 8-11 it is evergreen. The size is 1’x1′.
- Summer Skies- Stripes of blue/lavender on a white background with purple tips. It is hardy to zone 6, where it blooms from midsummer into fall. The buds are blue/black, and the size is 3’t x2’w.
- Tornado-A. praecox var. tornado. The blooms are blue/purple with white at the throat. The size is 3′ x 2′. Hardy, and deciduous in zone 6-7, it is evergreen in zones 8-11.
- Twister-Glossy leaves with white flowers and lavender/blue around the base. It blooms from mid-summer to autumn. Three’ tall and 3′ wide, it is hardy in zone 7-11.
Origin And Present Locations
The plants traveled from Africa, with many now growing wild in the Mediterranean. They proliferate in wild areas of the Mediterranean and Canary Islands. You will find them a popular garden element in the UK.
Where We See Agapanthus-The UK-California-Florida-Hawaii
We saw many on our six-week Narrowboat trip on the canal system in the UK. If you live there, you will find lots of advice online. The most important warning I see given to British gardeners is to avoid standing water in the winter. This is a sturdy perennial, but drainage is the key to success. Its origins are in rocky mountain soil, and that superior drainage is what it wants.
In the US, we see them on our Florida highway medians; in California subdivisions, they are popular. The houses in northern California are on hilly slopes. The rows of blue and white globes rise and fall as you drive through the neighborhoods.
Househunting, once, in the suburbs of San Francisco, we commented on the fabulous ocean views and miles of agapanthus at the first house we saw. The realtor looked at us oddly! We quickly learned why. Every house had fabulous ocean views, including the San Francisco Bay Bridge and the equally iconic agapanthus.
I read an article in la Monterrey newspaper that made the case that California gardeners look down on a plant growing so easily that gas stations decorate with them!
But not so in Hawaii! Those gardeners have exotic varieties and they appreciate them!
We found some brilliant examples in Hawaii. This included some vivid purple and almost black varieties. Hawaiian gardeners can compete with the British for who loves agapanthus the most!
The featured image for this article is a photo taken on a trip to the unforgettable Ulupalakaua Ranch, located on the slopes of Mt. Haleakala on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Overlooking a turquoise inlet filled with surfers, this remarkably New England-style lawn is lined with sky blue agapanthus. This architectural style comes from the whaling captains and missionaries who settled on the island in the 19th century.
The globes on tall stems sway in the mountain breeze in front of a white cottage. Today the building houses the tasting room for the ranch’s winery. It was built as a vacation house for King David Kalakaua, a popular guest of the Makee family who owned the ranch in the 1870s.
They loved to throw the big parties that the king loved. Mark Twain attended too. I would love to know what the Agapanthus saw over the years!
How Did The Agapanthus Get To Us?
European explorers and traders loved them. They brought them home from Africa to their own gardens. I read that you can actually follow the routes of the ships by the clusters of Agapanthus along the way! It’s a great story. Would it be fun to follow their trail someday?
How Did They Get To Be “Lily Of The Nile”?
Well… like a lot of the great titles in horticulture, it’s not true! Agapanthus is not a Lily, and it does not come from anywhere near the Nile!
The best explanation I can find is that the Victorians were fascinated by Africa. They knew the Nile was long. It is still likely to be the world’s longest river. (There are some votes for the Amazon.)
They thought that the Nile flowed through the whole continent. Charmed by the exotic flower, they came up with the romantic name, “Lily of The Nile.” Like a lot of notions we got from Victorian times, the name stuck.
It’s too bad that we try to think of the Victorians as stuffy. The age was a period of innovation and rapid change. From my reading, they seem inquisitive, adventuresome. Well…maybe a little stuffy. The point is, in the gardening world and life in general, we underestimate the people who preceded us at our peril.
Growing Your Own Agapanthus
Make Them Part of Your Garden Design
This is a perfect plant for the most visible places in your landscape. Surround your Agapanthus with soft plants that have smaller flowers. Plants with forms that spread or perhaps have a mounding shape will set off the higher globes.
Set Off The Colors
If you already have a color scheme, try the many varieties of white globes. In the appendix, I have listed some dealers in the bulbs and plants. They offer good photos you can use in your design. Again, many whites are available, and some have a little blue mixed in.
Today there are many shades of blue available, most foliage is soft green, but you will find some variegation. Some are silver-tipped if that will suit your design.
Rich dark greens and burgundy will set off the blue shades of the Agapanthus. Many of the new blue shades are rich shades of navy. Almost black varieties are now available. Some have violet notes. These do very well with warm colors and pastels.
If you would like these plants in your garden, there are sizes and colors to suit your existing plantings.
How To Buy Them
All the best advice I can find comes with this caveat. “Buy only named cultivars that suit your needs.” There is enough effort to get them started that you do not want to risk plants that are not created to produce for you.
How to Plant Agapanthus Tubers, Bare Root Plants, And Potted Plants
If you are planting tubers, plant in soil with compost added, place them pointy side up, 2″deep, and 12-18″ apart. This distance allows the plants’ room to grow and permits them to support one another.
Bare Root And Potted Agapanthus
If using potted or bare-root plants, ensure that the hole is large enough to permit the roots to spread. Choosing bare root or potted plants? It is your call. Some people say that you have a greater risk of damaged or dried-out roots when they are bare. On the other hand, the prices of the potted plants are somewhat higher, so make your choice.
Plant in a sunny spot with 6-8 hours of sun in most locations. For us in South Florida, a little shade is recommended.
The plant is not fussy about soil or pH. Excellent drainage is the most important feature.
How To Grow Agapanthus In Containers-And Why
Why plant in containers?
Agapanthus is a dramatic patio plant in bloom and the curved foliage comes in various colors and is charming in itself or with annuals for color. The plants are more easily moved if your climate will freeze and agapanthus flower best when their root growth is restricted.
How to Grow Agapanthus in Containers
First, sterilize the pot if you are reusing it. Place material in the bottom of the container to ensure drainage and use a potting mix with organic matter and enough grit for drainage. Size? In a pot 12″ in diameter, a single plant will suffice. In a slightly larger pot three plants will grow well.
Plant the tubers about 3″ deep and 8″ apart. Do not increase the pot size until the roots are visibly pushing the pot edges. Water twice weekly in summer and fertilize lightly.
If your temperature freezes in winter bring the plants or the pots inside.
Fertilization For Agapanthus
Use a balanced fertilizer, 10-10-10 or 5-5-5. It should have slightly higher phosphorous than nitrogen. Fertilize at the beginning of the growing season and repeat throughout the blooming season. Experienced growers tell me that they start feeding as soon as they see buds. Taper off as you approach the end of the growing season. In cold climates, take up the bulbs. In warmer areas, use a thick mulch as the plants die back.
What To Do After The Plant Flowers
This bud will become a huge round globe. When it is finished blooming you can cut the stem off near the ground and still have the pretty rounded foliage. You can trim any foliage which turns brown also.
Winter Storage in Cold Climates
Dig up the tubers and brush off the soil. Allow them to dry in a warm and dry place over a few days. Store in a cool and dry location over the winter with a low temperature of 50 degrees. It is good to label the tubers as you wrap them. You will be glad next spring.
Pests and Diseases
These plants are remarkably pest-free. However, spider mites and red mealybugs can be a problem. Botrytis is a devastating disease, particularly in humid areas. This is a fungus that prevents the plant from creating chlorophyll. Look for disease-resistant varieties when shopping.
When to Water Agapanthus
If the soil is dry 3″ down, it is time to water. Feel the soil regularly, about once per week is usually sufficient.
How and When to Divide Agapanthus Plants
Keep the plants slightly crowded or pot bound. Divide only when the plants are well crowded.
Dividing Evergreen Agapanthus
Separate the evergreen varieties every 3 or 4 years. Evergreen varieties retain their leaves and are hardy in zones 8-11.
Dividing Deciduous Agapanthus
Divide these only every 6-7 years. They will lose their leaves in winter and are hardy to zone 6.
In spring, before the plants bloom or in fall after the blooms are finished, carefully separate the root system and cut the foliage back by about half.
Why Will My Agapanthus Not Bloom?
Here are the most common reasons.
- You may be impatient; they often do not bloom in the first year after planting.
- Agapanthus requires a total 6 hours of sunlight in any climate except the extremely hot temperature in which I garden (zone 10). If you have healthy plants and no blooms, move the plants.
- Add water soluble fertilizer, two times per month in spring and once per month in summer.
- Just move the plants. It is often a solution.
Good Companion Plants For Agapanthus
Many plants have similar growing requirements, so this part offers you many choices.
- Other showy plants with long leaves and big blossoms. Try Iris, Daylily and Alliums.
- Go for color with these dramatic plants. Complementary colors abound in the natural world. For the blues and purples add yellows and orange. Your garden can be soft and romantic or vivid. Mix blues with yellow or vivid orange canna’s for
- Play with the dramatic height. Continue to raise your eye with vines, perhaps wisteria. On the bottom add a little magic with dianthus or alyssum.
How to Buy Agapanthus-Where To Find Them
Sold as small bare-root plants, tubers, or in pots, Agapanthus will show up in your local garden center. They are not always available in my area, and the choices are limited. Some large dealers sell online and ship from considerable varieties of size and color.
Brecks located in Indiana and The Netherlands; this is an importer of Holland Bulbs in a wide variety. You will see good photos of offerings online. They have been in business since 1818. Today I see 6 Agapanthus offerings.
Brent and Becky’s Bulbs located in Gloucester, VA, I see 4 offerings with comments on growing conditions.
Burpee: I found 5 offerings and an educational article. They are located in Warminster, PA.
Easy to Grow Bulbs: This is a family-owned business in Oceanside CA; they source bulbs from Holland, Israel, South Africa, and the US. There are currently 10 Agapanthus offerings.
Far Reaches Farm: This company is located in Port Townsend, WA; they should be reachable because their motto is “We’re all here because we’re not all there.” I see nine offerings with pretty detailed descriptions.
They offer 19 varieties, but not all are available online. Otherwise, they show you the retailers with whom you will need to follow up. In business since 1926, its headquarters is in Azusa, CA.
I have corresponded with all of these companies to ensure that their products adapt well to my humid South Florida Garden. I also see that my local highway department uses them successfully on highway medians.
Southern Living Magazine Collection-You will find, in garden centers, plants from this collection.
Agapanthus in Our Garden
We garden in Southwest Florida. Our environment is defined by sunny days, a warm climate, and wet and dry weather extremes. Our soil is, by nature, just sand.
We have amended our soil with compost which should help with nutrition and drainage, a key issue for Agapanthus. Naturally, sun lovers, the plants will be placed in a position with a little shade, which is advisable for our zone.
The dealers offer shipping schedules, and we expect to be able to plant by early March. I’ll write again when we get started. Happy Planting