Azure agapanthus, queen of the show

Editor’s note: This article is from the archives of the MSU Crop Advisory Team Alerts. Check the label of any pesticide referenced to ensure your use is included.

West Michigan is not exactly the South African oasis that the genus Agapanthus requires to grow. Yet, what makes this plant so appealing that it is gradually making its way out of Victorian garden parlors and into our back yard? Could it be that the exotic, azure inflorescence conjures up images of Cleopatra reclining under a canopy while dipping her toes into the Nile? Well, I guess that’s stretching it.

A South African native, Agapanthus has been cultivated for centuries as an elegant conservatory plant. With recent research and plant selection, this lily-like plant is becoming hardy to the point of overwintering even in some west Michigan backyards. Alice Otter, MSU Extension Advanced Master Gardener has had Agapanthus coming up and multiplying in her yard for years. “I got my first one at an iris society plant sale,” she said. “I didn’t know too much about it, but was willing to give it a try if it wasn’t too fussy so I stuck it in along side of my garage.” Since then, she notes that the plant has not only survived, but also thrived. The elegant blue blooms are globe-shaped like an Allium but the tiny trumpet-shaped florets are more open. It’s not one of the tall varieties, she says, but is more manageable at only three feet.

Allium Schubertii seed and Agapanthus.

Tender or hardy?

Otter’s urban garden may not be a true hardiness test because of her unique microclimate conditions. “At some point, you have to get beyond what magazine articles say,” she exclaimed. Even though this beautiful perennial is listed as hardiness zone 7. She encourages other gardeners to try setting out Agapanthus in areas you know in your yard that are somewhat sheltered. For instance, in our back yard, the best spot would be over the septic tank. The soil never freezes there.

Agapanthus love well drained, humus-rich soil and do great in a mixed container. Fertilizer should be applied in the spring as the foliage emerges, and keeping plants well watered will simulate their native setting. Otter said they did just as well for her in part-shade as full sun.

Lily of the Nile freely hybridizes, providing growers with a host of choices in various shades of blue to white, as well as bloom heights. Shorter varieties such as ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Lilliput’ bloom profusely and can be used in containers or as a border plant. Agapanthus ‘Midnight Blue,’ is known to be very elegant. Agapanthus has attractive, strap-like leaves that are shiny like an Amaryllis. A variegated variety and a few miniatures are also available.

Lily of the Nile, frequently listed as a Zone 7 plant, has not been widely available to gardeners who don’t want to search every mail-order catalog available. With the trend toward plants of a more tropical nature, Agapanthus is likely to become more available at garden centers in the future.

Blue Du-os

Because of the mild climate, English gardeners see Agapanthus flourishing. Pairing them with spring blooming bulbs, such as Allium cristophii and ornamental grasses that peak later in the season, gives a long season of interest. The long bloom time is very accommodating for a wide variety of mixed perennial border plants and is beautifully paired with the golden foliage of Hakonechloa or ‘Marmalade’ Heuchera.

Container grown Agapanthus can be overwintered in an above-freezing garage, inside the home or greenhouse for winter. They tend to take up the whole pot and then some. Mine is happily sitting on the bathroom windowsill and to my surprise, bloomed white on a three foot stalk in February. Water and fertilizer should be used sparingly during these low-sunlight months, as would most houseplants.

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