Agapanthus is as blue as the Sydney summer sky and just as dependable (give or take a year from La Niña). But this ancient garden resource has a dark side: it’s on the weed watch list in NSW, where it has already invaded bushland in the Blue Mountains National Park and established itself, uninvited, on the banks of streams across the Sydney suburbs.
There are two theories for its advance. Ripe seeds can wash down storm drains and from there find their way into streams and watercourses. Most notably, unwanted clumps have been dug up in gardens and dumped in bushes.
So it is the behavior of humans rather than the agapanthus itself that causes the problem. The solution is very simple: never throw away garden waste; cut off the flower heads of the agapanthus when the flowers have finished and well before the seed matures; and choose less fertile modern cultivars over the old blue or white species.
Agapanthus is a native of South Africa, which was growing in Europe in the mid-17th century, having traveled on the ships of the United Dutch East India Company. At the time it was called the African hyacinth and did not take its present name until the late 18th century when the director of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, marveling at the astonishing ball of flowers, looked up his Greek dictionary and decided on “agape” which means love and “anthus” which means flower.
Australian colonial gardeners were early adopters of the ‘love flower’ and by 1883 three varieties of agapanthus were being grown in the Melbourne Botanic Gardens. Garden writer Mrs Rolf Boldrewood described agapanthus as “creating showy plants in open borders” in her 1893 publication. The Flower Garden in Australia: A Book for Ladies and Hobbyists.
Very popular in the late 20th century, aggies are now dismissed as common, but familiarity shouldn’t breed contempt. Agapanthus reigns supreme in a variety of difficult roles, including stabilizing steep slopes and offering a low-maintenance, low-water option in driveways, along fence lines, and in pots. Its large flower globes herald summer and fill vases at Christmas.
The old favorite showed a new benefit during the terrible wildfires of 2020. Gardeners noted that a mass planting of aggies halted the advance of the grass fire. The key is the sticky sustenance of the leaves and stem called mucilage. The mucilage of some plants is good for healing, like that of aloe vera, for example, but the mucilage of agapanthus is the opposite and can cause irritation to the skin and eyes.
On the plus side, all mucilage is filled with water and acts as a fire retardant. This effect is especially useful when agapanthus are mass-planted and used in conjunction with other fire-safe planting options.
As we reshape our gardens to adapt to climate change, the agapanthus, with its drought-resistant and pest-resistant nature, could rise from the dustbin of sin and regain favor as the flower of love, as long as we all cut down the dead. . heads out
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