Some people might be shocked, and perhaps will even write me off, because I am devoting my first plant post to Lily of the Nile (Agapanthus orientalis), AKA agapanthus. This plant is commonly used in designed California landscapes because of it’s beauty and how easy it is to grow in our climate. It is often found in pots at gas stations, planted in small islands amongst rows of cars in strip mall parking lots, and at one point was often seen along California highway onramps when the state had money to invest in “freeway beautification.” Of course, when there becomes an influx of too many of one thing, that thing begins to lose value and favor in the eyes of some. Perhaps this “upturning of the nose” is more common in California because we’re fortunate enough to have agapanthuses blooming year round. Maybe if we lived on the East Coast some of us would appreciate them a bit more and not give them common names like “gas station lily,” “freeway lily,” or “obnoxioupanthus.”
But I am not here to further promote the anti-agapanthus movement. While it isn’t my favorite plant on earth, it does stir up childhood memories for me of my Grandparents’ backyard in Los Angeles. As someone attuned to plants, a lot of my memories are strongly tied to the sights and smells of the flora I encounter (just wait until I write my posts on Artemisia tridentata, Pinus jeffreyi, and Ephedra californica!) When I think of childhood Easter egg hunts in Grandma and Grandpa’s backyard, I think of how my aunt used to purposely hide hard-boiled eggs amongst the snails living around the base of the agapanthus plant next to the giant grapefruit tree. I was one of the few grandkids who wasn’t disgusted by the sight of a slimy snail creeping along a poorly-died egg in the dirt. I wasn’t going to eat the shell anyway…..I let my brother do that instead.
If personal memories of mine or of your own aren’t enough to inspire appreciation of Agapanthus orientalis, perhaps it’s name will be of interest. Botanical names are all latinized and typically get their monikers in one of these ways: 1) after the person who first recorded the plants existence, 2) after specific characteristics of the plant, or 3) after the location where the plant was discovered. So “orientalis” should make you think “Orient,” and therefore coming from somewhere in Asia or nearby. But Agapanthus orientalis is from South Africa. How can this be? Is the Orient really just anywhere that’s not Europe? Well, it was for the explorers back in the day when various European monarchs were sending them off to find places to conquer and colonize. There wasn’t much a difference to the first people who brought Agapanthus orientalis to Europe whether they picked the plant up in Africa, Indonesia, or what is now known as Florida. It was all the Orient to them. So we who talk poorly about this plant nowadays weren’t the first to disrespect it. How many other ways can we offend this plant? Eh, it doesn’t really matter. Look at how well they grow. It’s obvious they don’t care what we say about them or call them.
Plants like agapanthus serve many purposes: 1) They are relatively easy to grow, so even the garden novice can enjoy some horticultural success and be inspired to have faith in their green thumbs. 2) When grown in groups and not completely neglected, they grow large and make us feel like we are in a lush and perhaps even tropical environment. 3) Those spikes of large violet or dark blue or white inflorescences contrasting against the giant mounds of long, bright green leaves truly do inspire you to wish you were somewhere calm and peaceful – or maybe just confuse your mind into thinking you’re not really about to sit in what could be hours of traffic on the freeway.
So next time you see Agapanthus orientalis growing in that gas station planter or next to where you parked your car, think about their beauty, the memories they may inspire in you, or feel bad for how we humans have mistreated them over the centuries. This will take your mind off the fact that gas is almost $4.00 a gallon and the last thing you want to do after working all day is go grocery shopping.