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Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Alluring and healing Agapanthus

Easy-to-grow Agapanthus (African Lily) produce glorious clusters of lily-like blooms that last throughout the summer.

I guess, as I live and garden in South Africa, the native home of Agapanthus, I have tended to take this amazing plant for granted. The gardens of my childhood home always included masses of both blue and white varieties. As children we loved to use the tall flower stems (after the flowers had withered) for Zorro style sword fights! My garden now has a number of the indigenous species all of which give great pleasure.

Agapanthus is of the family Agapanthaceae and some of the common names are common agapanthus, blue lily (Eng.); bloulelie, agapant (Afr.); isicakathi (Xhosa); ubani (Zulu). Most of the agapanthus that are grown are cultivars or hybrids of Agapanthus praecox, which is endemic to the Eastern Cape. It is generally 0.8 to 1m tall and flowers in mid to late summer (December - February) in South Africa.

Agapanthus praecox is easy to grow and it does well even in the poorest of soils, but it must receive some water in summer. To perform at its best, give it rich, well-drained soil with ample compost (decayed organic matter) and plenty of water in spring and summer. As with most plants, they benefit most from regular (e.g. weekly) deep drenching as opposed to frequent superficial waterings. It prefers full sun and some cultivars will flower in semi-shade. All the evergreen agapanthus are best lifted and divided every four years or so to ensure flowering. A. praecox will tolerate light frost, but in areas with extreme winter temperatures they are best grown in the cool greenhouse, or in containers that can be taken into a greenhouse during winter.

Perhaps what most gardeners fail to give much thought to, is the wonderful medicinal properties of so many of the plants we grow in our gardens. In South Africa, many of the indigenous African people consider Agapanthus to be both a magical and a medicinal plant, and the plant of fertility and pregnancy.

Traditionally Xhosa women (of the Eastern Cape) use the roots to make antenatal medicine, and they make a necklace using the roots that they wear as a charm to bring healthy, strong babies.

Margaret Roberts, a renowned herb grower, author and specialist in the use of herbal remedies, advises hikers to put leaves in their shoes to soothe the feet, and to wrap weary feet in the leaves for half an hour. The long, strap-like leaves also make an excellent bandage to hold a dressing or poultice in place, and winding leaves around the wrists are said to help bring a fever down.

However, Agapanthus is suspected of causing haemolytic poisoning in humans, and the sap causes severe ulceration of the mouth so the plant should not be chewed or swallowed.


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