Common names: common agapanthus, blue lily (Eng.); bloulelie, agapant (Afr.); isicakathi (Xhosa); ubani (Zulu)
Agapanthus is a very variable genus, yet they are all broadly similar in appearance, with rhizomatous roots, strap-like leaves and an umbellate inflorescence on a stalk held above the leaves. Botanists have always found it tricky to classify them into distinct species. Frances Leighton revised the genus in 1965, recognizing ten species in total: four evergreen species, viz. A. africanus, A. comptonii, A. praecox and A. walshii and six deciduous species, viz. A. campanulatus, A. caulescens, A. coddii, A. dyeri, A. inapertus and A. nutans. Zonneveld & Duncan (2003), using nuclear DNA content and pollen vitality and colour, as well as morphology, now consider A. comptonii to be identical to A. praecox subsp. minimus; A. walshii to be a subspecies of A. africanus; A. dyeri to be identical to A. inapertus subsp. intermedius; and A. nutans to be identical to A caulescens. As a result there are now only two evergreen species i.e. A. africanus and A. praecox and four deciduous species i.e. A. campanulatus, A. caulescens, A. coddii and A. inapertus, making six species in total.
The evergreen species come from the winter rainfall Western Cape and all-year rainfall Eastern Cape and shed a few of their old outer leaves every year and replace them with new leaves from the apex of the growing shoot. The deciduous species come from the summer rainfall Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland, Free State, Lesotho, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and Mozambique, and grow rapidly in spring with the onset of the rains, and then lose their leaves completely and lie dormant during winter. Deciduous species covered on this website to date include A. coddii, and A. inapertus with its dark blue clone ‘Graskop’.
Agapanthus praecox, one of the evergreens, is an extremely variable species consisting of three subspecies: subsp. praecox, subsp. orientalis and subsp. minimus. It can be recognized by its 6-20 leaves per individual plant. These leaves are strap-like and may be leathery or flaccid, narrow or broad, short or long and have blunt or pointed tips. Although this description is very broad, it is relatively easy to tell it apart from the other evergreen species: A. africanus is restricted to Western Cape, mainly from the Cape Peninsula to Paarl and Stellenbosch, and as far eastwards as Swellendam. Its range does not overlap with that of A. praecox. It is small, 250 to 700 mm, flowers in late summer (December to April) and its perianth is thick or fleshy in texture and the leaves are leathery. Many gardeners and even some authors of publications mistakenly call the agapanthus in cultivation A. africanus. This is almost certainly incorrect. A. africanus is a winter rainfall plant and is difficult in cultivation, needing very well-drained soil, hot, dry summers and wet winters. Practically all the evergreen agapanthus in cultivation in the world, are hybrids or cultivars of A. praecox.
Agapanthus praecox subsp. praecox occurs in Eastern Cape, it is generally 0.8 to 1 m tall and flowers in mid to late summer (December – February). It is distinguished from the other two subspecies by its longer perianth segments (50 mm or longer) and fewer leaves (10-11 per plant) which are leathery and suberect (spreading rather than arching). Flowers are open-faced and medium blue.
Agapanthus praecox subsp. orientalis occurs in Eastern Cape and southern KwaZulu-Natal and is also generally 0.8 to 1 m tall and flowers in mid to late summer (December – February). It is distinguished from subsp. praecox by its shorter perianth segments (less than 50 mm), and it has more leaves (up to 20 per plant) which are not leathery and have an arching habit. It differs from subsp. minimus by having a more dense inflorescence, the whole plant is larger and it forms thick clumps. Flowers are open-faced, pale to medium blue or pure white.
Agapanthus praecox subsp. minimus occurs in the southeastern Western Cape and Eastern Cape, is smaller than the other two, only 300 to 600 mm tall, and starts flowering earlier, from early to late summer (November to March). It differs from the other two subspecies in being a smaller plant, with fewer leaves per plant (up to 10) and there are fewer flowers in the inflorescence. It has shorter perianth segments than subsp. praecox (less than 50mm) and it does not form as dense clumps as subsp. orientalis. Flowers are open-faced, pale to dark blue or occasionally greyish white or white.
Agapanthus species are easily able to hybridize with each other, particularly when grown in close proximity and as a result, a bewildering array of garden hybrids have arisen. At Kirstenbosch in addition to having many examples of the pure, wild-collected Agapanthus species on display, we have a number of different forms of the species, both of garden origin and wild-collected.