All About African Lily

african lilyafrican lily

By Marianne Willburn, gardening expert, landscape designer and writer.

Gardeners in California and Florida certainly have the edge when it comes to cultivating thriving clumps of African lily (also well-known by its botanical name agapanthus).

After all, it is native to the scorching suns of South Africa, and as such, can be tricky for gardeners in climates north of Zone 8. With all the favorable press of the last few years, however, more and more gardeners outside the traditional range of this plant are wanting to join the party, only to find themselves with less than favorable results.

The good news is, there is hope for adoring fans in cooler climates. With a little patience, a good site and a willingness to overwinter them much as one would do a dahlia, you can add this plant to your garden knowing you are very likely to field a lot of interest from visitors – and quite possibly requests for a division or two.There are many species of agapanthus in shades of blue, white and occasionally pink, and there are also evergreen species that survive only in the warmest gardens.

American Meadows sells divisions of a blue deciduous species that has been picked for strong hardiness at the edge of its growing zone.

For gardeners growing in Zones 8-11

Sited in a warm garden where it can overwinter outdoors, agapanthus soon grows into a large clump with long, glossy, strap-like leaves reaching a height of 2-3’, and a spread of 18-24.” Umbellate flower heads appear in mid to late summer and are held above the foliage at the end of long, sturdy stems.

Often these flowers are arranged in an open, globular pattern much like an ornamental allium, but can be flattened on the bottom in some species.

The strappy leaves make it a superb border plant contrasted with larger-leaved foliage plants such as canna or banana, and the calming shades of blue mid-season can add a cooling effect to the garden. Agapanthus also contrasts extremely well against the yellow flowers of lantana or argyranthemum.

In time, the clumps will become quite large and require dividing. After flowering, dig the entire clump and wash the soil off the leaves so that you can make sharp, exacting cuts. Replant divisions 18-24” apart and water well, keeping moist until the season ends and the clump goes into natural dormancy.

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<a href="/perennials/unique-perennials/african-lily">African Lilies</a> are a hummingbird favorite! (Customer Photo by Teddy M.)
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For gardeners growing in Zones 5-7

Agapanthus loves heat and a good amount of time to enjoy it. Therefore if your growing season is fairly short, it will probably be most successful as a conservatory or greenhouse plant. However, if you’ve got hot summers and an average length to your season, you should be able to enjoy the summertime blooms outside with a little extra work.

In these cooler climates, agapanthus must be brought indoors for the winter, where it will live out the cold months in a dormant state. Those without a greenhouse need not shy away from agapanthus for this reason. The plant can be dug and kept in a garage or basement, where the temperature is kept just above freezing.

In order to bloom well the next season, it needs these lower temperatures. Any warmer and your bloom will be sacrificed next year, so don’t keep it in a living area or a warm spare bedroom.

Patience is the key word for gardeners north of Zone 7 growing this beautiful warm climate beauty.

A small division will take at least a year to establish itself, and when you add the disruption of digging and overwintering, it can take a couple of years to bloom well. This is precisely why cool season gardeners often put agapanthus in a pot so that the root ball is not disturbed when it is brought inside for the winter.

african lilies in a gardenafrican lilies in a garden
Shades of blues and purples will illuminate your garden when planting <a href="/perennials/unique-perennials/african-lily">African Lilies.</a>

This way, soil, fertilizer and water can also be closely monitored, which can end in a superb result. Don’t forget – pots can always be plunged into earth or put on risers in garden beds to give the height effect you’re looking for.

Gardeners in Zone 7 with good exposure should be able to overwinter agapanthus outdoors, but a good layer of mulch is imperative in the late fall, as is a site that is sunny and has well-draining soils. Agapanthus do not like extra moisture in the winter, so if you have much in the way of precipitation, you may want to put your plants in cold frames during the season.

Use it sparingly with great effect

Though I have been on the East Coast for many years now, I am originally a California native, and used to have a very blasé attitude about agapanthus and its overuse in Southern Californian landscapes. There, it is often massed with Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia spp.) without any thought as to contrast or design.

However, used indiscriminately, any plant can become a bore in the landscape. It took the relative absence of this gorgeous, versatile plant to turn me on to how fabulous it is when I see gardeners in my region taking time and effort to grow it and grow it well.

It’s exciting to see that in recent years, there has been a renewed interest in adding agapanthus to gardens that wouldn’t normally grow it. As a result, new and hardier cultivars are coming onto the market, allowing more gardeners to grow it without too much fuss.

It’s a perennial that requires a little thought when you grow it outside of its native range, but it stretches the gardener’s experience and knowledge, which is always a great thing.

I am currently experimenting with agapanthus clumps against the south facing side of my barn where the warm wall and rain shadow make overwintering a breeze in my Zone 7 climate. In the summer I have to remember to give it adequate water, as it needs much more in the way of moisture during the growing season.

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Even Northern gardeners can grow this unique garden gem, with only a little patience.

Whether it is in your outdoor border, or your indoor conservatory, the beautiful blooms make excellent arrangements indoors, and can be dried for everlasting winter bouquets.


About the Author: Marianne Willburn is a columnist, blogger and author of the new book "Big Dreams, Small Garden: Creating Something Extraordinary in Your Ordinary Space." Originally from California, she now gardens in Virginia – read more at www.smalltowngardener.com.

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