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Lily of the Nile vows to beguile
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
I have traveled a lot this summer, and I have seen the Lily of the Nile strutting her stuff from coast to coast. Mention summer bulbs and your first thought is probably the caladium, the elephant ear or even the rhizome of the canna lily. Or, you may be like many gardeners who are finally giving the Agapanthus, or Lily of the Nile, a try.
The name Agapanthus comes from the Greek words “agape” for love and “anthos” for flower. Growing it will likely generate an agape-type feeling for the plant. Commonly called Lily of the Nile, or African lily, the botanical name, Agapanthus africanus, refers to its origin.
Agapanthus africanus has been in the United States the longest, and it is actually considered an heirloom plant. Then there are Agapanthus praecox, Agapanthus campanulatus and hybrids that lead to much arguing among taxonomists over the correct names of the various cultivars. You can grow them and enjoy them no matter what you call them.
Most references suggest Lily of the Nile is cold hardy to zone 8. A few find bliss in zone 7. Some Agapanthus varieties are evergreen and some are deciduous. Many of the evergreens can lose their leaves in the winter and still put on a show for summer if the temperature did not get too cold.
A group called the Headbourne hybrids has the ability to spread the happiness over a much greater length of time because they are deciduous and tolerate cold weather. Most references suggest using these plants in zone 6.
The Agapanthus is in the Amaryllis family. While the plant is listed in bulb books, it is really produced on rhizomes, which are thick, modified stems that grow below the soil.
Although white varieties exist, most people grow these plants for the spectacular blue flowers produced in the form of huge globes or spheres sitting atop stalks that reach 2-4 feet above the ground. These globes, called umbels, may have as many as 20 to 100 flowers, depending on variety and species. They bloom from late May into July.
As with most of our plants, soil preparation plays a vital role in successfully growing the Lily of the Nile. The rhizomes can rot in wet soils. Prepare the bed by incorporating from 3-4 inches of organic matter and sand and till to a depth of 8-10 inches. This groundwork will allow maximum drainage and aeration, and will increase its chances of surviving winter.
Mulching is one of the most important cultural practices because it stabilizes soil temperatures and helps protect the rhizomes during extremely cold winters. In dry summers, the mulch helps hold moisture.
Best blooming will occur in full sun, so choose a site that receives six to eight hours of sun. Feed with a balanced fertilizer or a 1-2-1 ratio in the spring and again in the summer.
The Lily of the Nile not only beautifies the landscape but also excels in containers. Containers restrict root growth, which causes great flowering. Extra-special winter care is needed for plants grown in containers.
Once Lily of the Nile is established in the landscape, the clumps can be left alone and may not need to be divided for six years. Divide in the fall if you want more plants.
For a plant as beautiful as the Lily of the Nile, there are numerous ways it can be used in the landscape. Group a cluster around a windmill palm, or plant them in front of tall bananas. One of the prettiest plantings I saw this year was a grouping in front of a red bougainvillea. It was almost gaudy but still a combination planting I will not quickly forget.
If you live in a cold area of the state, try what gardeners in Great Britain do. Store the deciduous types in the garage or cellar where it is dark and temperatures remain above freezing. Do not water. Place evergreen types in cool, lighted areas and water occasionally.
You are sure to have an area around your home that would be more beautiful if you added the Lily of the Nile.