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Gardening from Southern California

...Lily of the Nile or Agapanthus
by Gerald Burke
by Gerald Burke


Gerald Burke is a freelance travel and horticultural writer. He spent 35 years in the seed business, 30 of them with Burpee, and is a member of the Garden Writers Association and the North American Travel Journalists Association

January 23, 2005

Despite a relatively short bloom period, Lily of the Nile, or agapanthus, is a favorite in Southern California gardens. It’s a truly hardy plant, a perennial that lives on for years, tolerates some frost, manages well in any kind of heat, including that in the low desert, and produces some of the most remarkable blue flowers we have.

Grown from seed, started plants or root divisions, Lily of the Nile makes a good foundation planting in a flower bed, as an edging or border, and is almost disease and trouble free. There are tall kinds, the most common and what we see most often, as well as some dwarf kinds that only get 15 to 20 inches tall. They do well in containers but it must be a large one, at least 15 inches in diameter and ten inches or more deep.

The tall flower spikes, with the funnel shaped florets in a big puff ball at the top create a haze of blues when they’re in full bloom. The colors vary from deep blue to light blue, some lavender and there is also a white variety that looks good interspersed with the blues. The light green, strap-like leaves of the plant offer a good contrast.

Lily of the Nile might be one of the least demanding of our early summer blooming flowers. It will thrive with lots of water, but isn’t deterred by getting only a little water. It has few disease problems, manages well in almost any kind of soil, and requires only moderate fertilizer during the year. It will tolerate a little frost but not freezing, and as a perennial requires dividing only about every three to five years. And best of all they’re clean plants, which means they can be set in around and near a swimming pool.

Among the many named varieties, a few are the ones we see most. Headbourne Hybrids is one you’ll often see as a started plant in the nursery, and it’s also offered from seed in some catalogs. It’s a tall one, usually three feet. Peter Pan is one of the best dwarf varieties at around a foot tall, with flower spikes a little longer. Orientalis is also a name you may see on a label in started plants, and it’s tall, four feet, with big strappy leaves that arch well.

There are some selections made for very deep blue flowers and they include named varieties such as Elaine, Storm Cloud, Mood Indigo, and Ellamae. They’re sometimes hard to find in the nursery, but some better nurseries do carry them.

Not entirely carefree, Lily of the Nile does need to be cleaned up after it blooms, and the leaves begin to turn to a brownish tan. You can remove them or leave them until they wither up completely, but the plants do look a little untidy when they’re in that dormant phase. Lily of the Nile can be divided and transplanted after the bloom season ends. Take a good chunk of the fleshy roots and plant at the same depth they were before. Water them well to get them started then only occasionally.

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