A dainty deciduous agapanthus from the Drakensberg, this is a good choice for gardeners in cold areas who struggle to grow evergreen agapanthus.
Agapanthus campanulatus is deciduous, growing in spring - summer and dormant during winter. It is a clump-forming perennial, growing 0.4 to 1 m tall. The slender, glossy green or greyish-green, strap-like leaves narrow to a distinct purplish stem-like base and it produces 6-12 leaves per plant.
Umbels of 10 to 30, pale to deep blue flowers with a darker blue stripe are presented on a long flower stalk in mid- to late summer (Dec-Mar). Look closely at the flowers and you'll notice that the anthers are bluish as well, this is because the pollen is lilac in colour - a characteristic it shares with A. caulescens and A. coddii. The fruit is a capsule containing many flat, black, winged seeds. Plants that have been in cultivation for some time tend to increase in size when compared to wild relatives.
Agapanthus campanulatus consists of two subspecies. Leighton described them as two distinct species, but as more specimens were collected it was realised that they were extreme forms of the same species: Agapanthus campanulatus subspecies campanulatus flower tubes are longer and the tepal lobes are less spreading than those of Agapanthus campanulatus subspecies patens whose tube is shorter than the tepal lobes and the lobes are widely spreading to reflexed.
The bell agapanthus is found growing in colonies in moist grassland, moist slopes, valley bottoms, drainage lines, damp cliffs and on rocky slopes up to 2400 m in the Eastern Cape, Lesotho, KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and Mpumalanga. Agapanthus campanulatus subspecies campanulatus is found at lower altitudes in the midlands of KwaZulu-Natal and in the Eastern Cape and the Free State.
Agapanthus flowers are visited by bees. The seeds are dispersed by wind.
Derivation of the name & historical aspects
The genus Agapanthus was established by L'Heritier in 1788. It used to be included in the Liliaceae (lily family), was then moved to the Amaryllidaceae (amaryllus & daffodil family), moved again into the Alliaceae (onion family) then back to Amaryllidaceae and is now the only member in its own family, the Agapanthaceae.
Agapanthus is endemic to southern Africa, i.e. until people transported them elsewhere they did not occur outside of southern Africa. It consists of six variable species that are widespread in all the provinces of South Africa except for the Northern Cape, and in Lesotho and Swaziland but not in Namibia or Botswana. There are two evergreen species: A. africanus and A. praecox and four deciduous species: A. campanulatus, A. caulescens, A. coddii and A. inapertus.
They occur only in areas where the rainfall is more than 500 mm (20 inches) per annum, from sea level to 2000 m (7000 ft), with a distribution range that extends from the Cape Peninsula in the south-west, along the southern and eastern coast of southern Africa then inland and northwards into the mountainous regions south of the Limpopo River. 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.
The name Agapanthus is derived from the Greek agapé love and anthos, flower. There is no clear reason for this derivation although it could be interpreted as 'lovely flower' or 'flower of love'. Agapeo means 'to be contented with' which is a possible derivation, i.e. 'flower with which I am well pleased'. Agapanthus campanulatus is named for its campanulate or bell-shaped flowers. The name of the subspecies patens means spreading, referring to the widely spreading tepal lobes.
Agapanthus has attracted a few common names over the years. In its first publication in Europe in 1679 it was called the African hyacinth. Linnaeus called it the African lily, and nowadays in Europe and America it is still known as the African lily, but also rather geographically off the mark as lily of the Nile. In South Africa they are commonly called agapanthus or bloulelie. This one is distinguished as the bell agapanthus from its Latin name.
Uses & cultural aspects
Agapanthus campanulatus roots are crushed and made into a lotion that is used to bathe newborn babies to make them strong, and the leaves are used to wash young babies. It is also used to treat 'cradle cap' and as a protective charm against lightning.
Growing Agapanthus campanulatus
Agapanthus campanulatus is easy to grow. It requires rich, well-drained soil with ample compost (decayed organic matter) and plenty of water in summer. It does well in full sun, or semi-shade. It does not mind irrigation during its winter dormant period and does very well in the winter rainfall Western Cape, provided it is planted in well-drained soil.
To get the best out of Agapanthus campanulatus feed generously every spring and water well during spring and summer. Take note that unlike the evergreen agapanthus that need to be lifted and divided every four years or so to ensure optimal flowering, Agapanthus campanulatus, and all the other deciduous species, require a period of settling in and may not flower very well in their first year after being re-planted. It is best to leave them undisturbed for up to six years.
Agapanthus campanulatus is frost hardy, and should be able to survive in permanent outdoor cultivation in areas with a winter minimum of -7°C / 20° F (zone 9) although in regions that dip to -5° C / 23° F and below for long periods the plants should be mulched thickly with a protective layer of leaves / straw / hessian.
Agapanthus campanulatus is ideal for mass displays and makes a good groundcover in light shade under trees or planted in clumps in the herbaceous border. It is suitable for pot cultivation and is an excellent cutflower, either whole heads, or individual flowers in small arrangements or wired and used in bouquets and posies.
Propagation is by seed or division. Because Agapanthus hybridise freely with each other, and are all in flower at the same time, you can be sure that there will be hybrids from seed harvested in the garden. To get pure seed of Agapanthus campanulatus it would have to be habitat collected or pollinated under strictly controlled conditions.
Seed can be sown fresh, in late summer - autumn, but in cold climates it can be kept refrigerated (not frozen) and sown in spring. It must be kept in the refrigerator or it will perish.
Seed should be sown in deep (10 cm) trays, in a mixture of equal parts river sand and fine compost, and kept semi-shaded and moist. Seed germinates readily within six to eight weeks. The seed should be sown thinly as the seedlings will stay in the tray for their first year. Seedlings should be potted up into individual containers during their second year and can be planted into the garden or permanent pots in their third year. Flowering can be expected from their third or fourth year.
Clumps can be lifted and divided in spring just before active growth begins, and remember it is best not to lift them too frequently, as flowering will be adversely affected.
Agapanthus campanulatus is generally pest- and disease-free. Foliage may be attacked by red spider mites, thrips, and mealy bug but need only be sprayed if infestation is severe. Agapanthus are famous for harbouring snails, although the snails do not seem to cause any damage to the plants themselves. The best way to combat them is to remove them by hand or to keep ducks. Botrytis, visible as brownish lesions, may attack the flowers preventing them from opening. There is no cure, it can only be prevented by spraying before and after the buds break open. The foliage may be attacked by the fungus Macrophoma agapanthii causing die-back of the leaves, and in severe cases can be combatted with a fungicide like mancozeb or captab as a full cover spray.
- Duncan, Graham, 1998, Grow Agapanthus, A guide to the species, cultivation and propagation of the genus Agapanthus, National Botanical Institute, Trident Press, Cape Town.
- Hutchings, A. 1996. Zulu medicinal plants, an inventory. University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg.
- Jackson, W.P.U., 1990, Origins and Meanings of Names of South African Plant Genera, U.C.T. Printing Dept., Cape Town.
- Leighton, Francis M., 1965, The Genus Agapanthus L'Heritier, Journal of South African Botany, Supplementary Volume No. IV, National Botanic Gardens, Cape Town.
- Pooley, Elsa 2003 Mounain Flowers, A Field Guide to the Flora of the Drakensberg and Lesotho, The Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
- Zonneveld, B.J.M. & Duncan, G.D. 2003. Taxonomic implications of genome size and pollen colour and vitality for species of Agapanthus L'Heritier (Agapanthaceae). Plant Systematics and Evolution 241: 115-123.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden