The Beloved Agapanthus

Agapanthus cultivar after heavy rain at the Eden Project, Cornwall. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

Agapanthus is now in full bloom in the garden. Its flowers never fail to transport me back to memories of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. They thrive in the milder climate there. Their seemingly delicate umbels on long, wavering stems get buffeted by all the elements. Yet, they seem to withstand poor soil, strong coastal winds, drought, heavy downpours and salt spray. My copy of Chapman’s Wildflowers of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly even includes Agapanthus praecox as an accepted, naturalised plant.

Beloved but not a Lily

Agapanthus’s popularity is reflected in its Latin name. The name is formed from a compound of two Greek words: love + flower (agape + anthos). The taxonomic history is complicated and experts still dispute species boundaries. Today, the African Lily or Lily of the Nile is not placed in the Lily family at all. It resides in its own subfamily of Agapanthoideae in the Amaryllidaceae or Onion family. This classification is based on the umbellate inflorescence covered by bracts in bud according to Kew’s Plants of the World.

Link to a Forgotten Botanist

The plant had numerous other names before settling down to one. Its existence was first noted in 1629. We owe its name and description to a now largely forgotten French botanist: Charles Louis L’Héritier de Brutelle (1746-1800). He appears to have led a colourful life. He got caught up in the exciting times when plant hunters were bringing exotic, tropical species to Europe. He was a self-taught botanist who used his wealth to pursue his interests. His avowed aim was ‘to describe, in most cases portray and classify according to the Linnaean system plants that were either new or had gone largely unnoticed.’ His first publication was illustrated by the work of the future famous botanical artist, Pierre-Joseph Redouté.

L’Héritier de Brutelle was no stranger to intrigue. He escaped the guillotine during the French Revolution and absconded to England after an international dispute over specimen ownership with Spain. He was able to access Kew’s plant collections during his 2-year stay. (Joseph Banks named the genus Heritiera in Malvaceae after him). The French Revolution ruined him financially and curtailed his ability to continue publishing. Much of his work was therefore unfinished. Ultimately, he was the victim of an unsolved murder in France.

Today’s Agapanthus Hybrids

It was not until the 20th century that serious efforts were made to create new hybrids. An RHS Treasurer, the Honourable William Palmer, bred today’s popular Headbourne Hybrids. There are now over 600 Agapanthus cultivars that can be distinguished by

  • their colour: various shades of blue, white to almost black
  • flower form: funnel, trumpet, star or tubular
  • evergreen foliage or with foliage that dies back
  • foliage colour: light, dark green and variegated
  • foliage width and length
  • stem thickness and colour
  • flowering period.

Despite its frost tenderness in British winters, Agapanthus is very popular for borders and pots. It seems to have a bad reputation in other parts of the world. Roots that are nigh well impossible to eradicate have earned it a reputation as an invasive in New Zealand.

One of the above photos shows how Agapanthus praecox has naturalised on Tresco’s sand dunes and heathland. We seem to love this South African plant in the South West of England. The exceptionally cold winter of 1987/8 killed many plants in the Isles of Scilly. Agapanthus was so cherished and missed that the Scilly islanders reintroduced it.

© Karen Netto (Andrews)

References and Further Reading

Australian National Herbarium (2007): L’Héritier, Charles Louis de Brutelle (1746-1800). Biographical Notes. CHAH, 13 November 2007. Last accessed 24 July 2020.

BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine (2020): Agapanthus ‘Headbourne Hybrids’. Last accessed 24 July 2020.

Boyack, Nicholas (2018): Agapanthus are everywhere – but do people realise that it’s a weed that smothers native plants? Stuff.co.nz. Lifestyle. Gardening. 19 January 2018. Last accessed 24 July 2020

Campbell-Culver, Maggie (2013): The Origin of Plants. Eden Project Books.

Chapman, David (2008): Wildflowers of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Alison Hodge.

Christenhusz, Maarten J. M. & Fay, Michael F. & Chase, Mark W. (2017): Plants of the World. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Vascular Plants. Kew. Chicago.

Christie’s (1999): Charles Louis L’Héritier de Brutelle (1746-1800). Last accessed 23 July 2020.

Notten, Alice (2004): Agapanthus praecox. PlantZAfrica.com. South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). Last accessed 2 July 2020.

RHS (2020): How to grow Agapanthus. Last accessed 24 July 2020.

Tessier, Florence (2018): Sur les traces des botanistes oubliés: L’Héritier de Brutelle (1746-1800) 2 February 2018. The Conversation. Last accessed 23 July 2020.

Trebah Garden (2020): The Agapanthus. Last accessed 23 July 2020.

Vergote, Maurice & Wyckstandt, Tim (2020): History of the Agapanthus. Agapanthus. Last accessed 24 July 2020.

Zonneveld, Piet (2015): History. Agapanthus. Last accessed 23 July 2020.

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