African Lily

African Lily

Agapanthus, commonly called the African lily, produce glorious clusters of lily-like blooms that last throughout the summer. These clusters, made up of lots of bell-shaped flowers, can be globe-shaped or pendular, held aloft on vertical stems that can reach 1.2m tall. They mainly come in shades of blue, from a dusky, powder blue to an almost indigo-purple, but you can get some superb white varieties as well. They are at their best in mid- to late summer, even stretching into the autumn, thus creating colour and interest in the garden long after the spring madness has calmed down.

The fountains of simple strap-shaped leaves produced by African lilies provide a wonderful contrast with other types of foliage even before the flowers open. All African lilies are perennial, growing from an underground rhizome each year. Leave the hardier varieties alone in a sunny, sheltered spot in the garden and they will form bold clumps that will flower reliably year after year. They are equally suited to growing in pots on the terrace or patio, where not only will they look sensational, but also you can move them around for best effect. All make excellent, long-lived cut flowers. The decorative seedheads can be left to add interest to the border in autumn and winter and, as they dry, will scatter their seed. The seedheads also can be cut and dried for indoor decoration.

Early developments

The first African lilies to arrive in this country, from their native South Africa, were too tender to be grown outdoors. Fortunately, the Hon. Lewis Palmer, who fell in love with their impressive flowers, set about breeding new varieties that would be better suited to the English climate. Consequently there are now several hardier varieties that will withstand the winter weather in most parts of the country. The main difference between the two types is that the tender (A. africanus), which originated from the milder coastal areas are evergreen while the hardier (A. campanulatus) coming from moister, mountain grassland, have slightly smaller flowers and die down in winter before re-emerging again the following spring. You can still get hold of the more tender types, but you will need to protect these in winter by keeping them in a cool greenhouse or conservatory.

Variety guide

African lilies can be divided into three groups according their size. The smaller ones, which reach up to 60cm, are ideal for the front of a border or for growing in containers. Medium-sized (up to 90cm) and larger varieties (up to 1.2m) can be used in mixed plantings or at the back of a border where they will get plenty of sun.

Front of the border

Smaller varieties are ideal for the front of the border, where you will get the full benefit of both the flowers and foliage. They are probably the best bet for growing in containers too, but that's not to say you couldn't choose a taller variety as long as you provide it with a decent sized pot. 'Castle of Mey', is relatively compact at 60cm, with rounded umbels of violet-blue flowers, each with a deeper stripe down the length of their petals. If you want white flowers, then 'Albus' (60cm) is a great choice. Its bright white flowers look fresh and bright against the bright-green leaves and it's excellent in pots too, which gives you the option of moving it easily in winter.

Middle of the border

The mother of most of the cultivated varieties and one of the first to be brought over from South Africa is A. africanus . It has the advantage of being evergreen, but it is tender so you wont be able to leave it out in winter. If you want to opt for a hardy African lily then you should select one of the 'Headbourne Hybrids' (70cm), named after the garden where they were first raised by the Hon. Lewis Palmer. They come in a wide range of blue – and yes even white – flowers which are gently pendulous. Another wise choice is 'Phantom’ (90cm), with near white flowers that look like they have been dipped in watered down ink. Its lush foliage is held in all but the coldest winters. If you want something a little more dramatic, then take a look at 'Black Magic' (80cm). It's relatively new and is worth growing for its tough, robust growth and near-black flowers. Plant it next to rich plums, softer purples and silver.

Back of the border

The big daddies of the African lily family, these taller varieties will happily grow towards the back of the border, or make a dramatic stand in a large pot on the patio. 'Sky' is one of the tallest coming in at an impressive 1.4m. It has unusually long and slender flowers that form an attractive head on stiff stems. Coming in a bit lower at just 1.2m, but still putting on a jaw-dropping display is 'White Heaven'. Its flowerheads are impressively large (dinner plate-sized) and each holding up to 80 trumpet-shaped blooms. 'Queen Mum' (1.2) also has larger than average flowerheads and it looks incredible when planted in bold swathes through a herbaceous border.

Growing guide

African lilies love the sunshine, so you can grow them in any fertile, moist but free-draining soil as long as it's in a sunny position. The tender varieties will need moving to a frost-free conservatory or greenhouse before the weather turns cold, where they will need to be over-wintered The hardier types can be left outside all year in milder areas with just a generous mulch of chipped bark for protection. All African lilies are usually trouble free, but may attract slugs and snails in mild, damp weather.

African lilies in containers should be potted up using a loam-based compost, such as John Innes No.2, and planted with their crowns approximately 5cm below the surface of the compost. Water them freely when they are actively growing, but less so in winter when they are dormant. Apply a balanced liquid fertiliser, such as Miracle-Gro plant food, from the beginning of spring until they start to flower. If you can, resist the urge to cut back the dying foliage until it has gone quite crispy, so that most of the goodness goes back into the rhizome to produce a good flowering display the following year.

Propagation

Once you have developed a love for these wonderful plants you are going to want a lot more! You can easily add to your collection by gathering the seeds and sowing them, either as soon as they are ripe in autumn or store them until spring. If you choose to sow them in autumn, though, you will need to protect the seedlings from frost for their first year. Sow the seeds in small pots and plant them out when the young plants have become established. Plants grown from seed will take two or three years to begin flowering. Unfortunately, however, seed collected from the hybrids will not always come true to the parent, so results may be disappointing.

Although African lilies dislike too much root disturbance, you can also divide the rhizomes of well-established plants in mid-spring. Simply lift the large clump and divide it into up to four sections, but make sure you re-plant them as soon as possible to prevent them from drying out.