London - Right now, your garden may be at its peak but if it looks drained of colour, there is a quick and easy solution - plug any gaps with agapanthus lilies and you’ll be rewarded with a spectacular display.
Hailing from southern Africa, these perennials are prized for their rounded heads of long-lasting flowers, which come in many shades of purple, blue, pink and white.
The head-turning blooms are hoisted into the air on slender stems that emerge between dense clumps of foliage from July to September. Many continue to add sculptural interest to the garden over the winter thanks to long-lasting seed heads.
Agapanthus were first grown in Europe during the 17th Century. At the time, these sun-lovers were generally considered far too tender to survive outdoors in our climate and were largely treated as greenhouse or conservatory plants that were given an airing outdoors in summer.
However, a few gardeners in milder parts of Britain were more daring. Among them was Augustus Smith who, in 1856, planted Agapanthus praecox subsp orientalis in Tresco Abbey Garden on the Isles of Scilly. This handsome variety thrived there and soon went native, self-seeding itself across the island.
It’s still going strong - on a holiday to Tresco, I was left speechless by the sight of thousands of agapanthus blooming among the sand dunes.
During the Fifties and Sixties, the popularity of agapanthus soared thanks to horticulturist Lewis Palmer. He bred a range of hardy varieties in his garden at Headbourne Worthy in Hampshire. Boasting large heads of funnel-shaped flowers in a number of blue shades, Headbourne Hybrids were a hit and gave rise to many of the varieties available today.
There are now more than 500 varieties of agapanthus (the name means love flower in Greek) available to UK gardeners. These range in height from 6in “Tinkerbell” to 5ft monsters such as “Buckingham Palace”. Generally, the toughest varieties are deciduous and will die back over winter, while those with evergreen leaves are more delicate and need cosseting to survive the colder months.
Admirers of dark, dramatic flowers should seek out “Black Pantha”, an evergreen newcomer with 3ft stems crowned with globes of blue-black blooms that open from inky buds. Introduced in 2005, “Back in Black” is noted for its dark-purple flowers held on 25in black stems above dark, strappy foliage - as the flowers fade, they are replaced by attractive black seed heads.
There are many agapanthus with blue flowers. “Bressingham Blue” is a tough cookie with dark violet flowers that was raised by the late Alan Bloom at his Norfolk nursery. “Loch Hope” is azure blue, “Queen Mother” has navy-blue flower heads and “Delft” possesses delicate, powdery-blue blooms. All reach between 2ft and 4ft, but there are diminutive forms worth growing. “Baby Blue” grows to just 15in, while pale-blue “Peter Pan” gets a little taller.
Specialist nurseries stock many different white African lilies, but to my mind the most desirable is Agapanthus Ardene hybrid. This hardy specimen produces 2ft stems that carry purple-tipped buds that open to a snowy white. For pinkish flowers, try “Lilac Flash” and “Lilac Time”.
Most agapanthus are grown solely for their flowers, but some have ornamental foliage. The slender leaves of “Silver Moon” are edged with silver, while the broad leaves of “Meibont” are marked with cream. “Argenteus Vittatus” has 19in green leaves with white borders and a centre green stripe that turns yellow at the base.
Those with jazzy foliage look best when planted as individual feature plants, but the majority will make most impact if planted en masse in beds, alongside paths or in borders - plants taller than 5ft are ideal at the back of displays while shorter ones are perfect in the middle or at the front of borders. They associate well with yellow achillea, red-hot pokers, Verbena bonariensis, crocosmia and ornamental grasses.
Alternatively, grow compact varieties in pots. Choose containers between 8in and 9in in diameter and fill with gritty John Innes No3 compost. Ensure plants never dry out, but do not over-water as agapanthus hate to be waterlogged.
In mid-autumn, move pots to a frost-free place until late spring.
Looking after African lilies in the ground is easy. Simply protect the crowns from frost by covering with a blanket of bark mulch. The exposed leaves of evergreen varieties are likely to die back in very cold weather, but plants under this insulation will bounce back into life in spring. - Daily Mail