Agapanthus is a beautiful ornamental plant native to South Africa, although it has become quite well acclimatized in the United States, as well as the United Kingdom’s Scilly Isles and the Portuguese island of Madeira. The plant has many meanings, depending on its medicinal, linguistic or ornamental heritage.
The meaning of the scientific name
The genus name, “Agapanthus”, derives from two Greek words “agape”, which means “love”, and “anthos”, which means “flower”. Altogether, the agapanthus comes to mean the flower of love. It is also sometimes referred to as “African lily” and “lily of the Nile”, in homage to its African origins.
Plant taxonomists used to consider agapanthus as a member of the Alliaceae or allium family (the same family as onions and garlic).
Regardless of its botanical classification, agapanthus is a beautiful ornamental species best known for its rounded umbels of blue, blue-purple, or white tubular flowers.
Meaning and medicinal use
Some parts of the agapanthus plant are sometimes used medicinally. In South Africa and elsewhere, its roots are boiled in water to produce a tonic for pregnant women (We do not advise taking and eating any plant as medicine unless it is prescribed by a trusted doctor). The tonic is also used to promote contractions during labor. Pregnant women sometimes wear charms made from the dried roots to ensure the health of babies. Although agapanthus root in any of its forms can mean “healthy baby”, the sap contains substances that can irritate the skin or mucous membranes.
Meaning according to the language of flowers
Since ancient times, “secret” meanings have been assigned to flowers and have been used to convey feelings that could not be expressed more directly. This practice has a long history in China and eventually spread to the Middle East. The “language of flowers” was first introduced to Europe in the early 18th century by Charles II of Sweden, who had been in exile in Turkey for several years, and by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of a British diplomat, who observed the use of floral symbolism while stationed with her husband in Constantinople. One hundred years later, Queen Victoria became enthusiastic about the language of flowers, and the practice of including specific flowers in bouquets to convey specific meanings spread throughout the British Empire and the Western world. In the traditional language of flowers, agapanto meant “love letter.”
Agapanthus in the garden
To gardeners, the word “agapanthus” means a tall blue-flowered plant that grows from a fleshy rhizome and can reach a height of up to 60 inches. Many varieties feature flower heads that rise above the strap-like leaves, which are also somewhat fire resistant. Individual specimens are most effective when grouped in a border of agapanthus flowers or in containers. In cold winter climates, containerized specimens should be brought indoors during the fall and winter months.
Varieties of agapanthus
Growers have developed many new agapanthus hybrids in the past 10-15 years, looking for traits that include larger flower heads, color variations, and greater cold tolerance. The most popular are hybrids of the Agapanthus praecox, native plant of South Africa. As with many other tall plants, breeders have also tried to produce dwarf specimens with the same large flowers as the taller varieties, but with shorter stems. Dwarf agapanthus specimens are typically 6 to 12 inches tall and can have showy blue or white flowers.