Botany Blueprint: The Agapanthus

Specimen #9: Agapanthus (Agapanthus africanus)

espite its ambitions of accuracy, plant taxonomy is a discipline with shifty, sometimes bewildering results. It applies the methodologies of an empirical science, but, in reality, precision is often elusive. It endeavors to classify plants based on behaviors and forms and to delineate an evolutionary history of botanic relationships. A perfect identification will include the plant’s class, order, and family in order to position the specimen in a systematic hierarchy. And so a species is anointed with its name, which gives it an according placement within the map of botanic nomenclature.

The field was founded on the belief that classification was possible by perceiving innate relationships and thus reveal a greater order of the world. Carolus Linneaus, founding father of the discipline, wore the epithet Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit— “God created, Linnaeus organized.” Indeed, it is an attempt at organization of the highest magnitude. And it is not always a tidy business. Case in point: the agapanthus.

Much ado has been made over the agapanthus and its particular nomenclature. Initially included in the Liliaceae (lily family), it was then moved to the Amaryllidaceae (amaryllus & daffodil family), twice placed in the Alliaceae (onion family), then back to Amaryllidaceae again. Perhaps agreeing to disagree, botanists finally settled on a new family: the Agapanthaceae, of which the agapanthus is the only member. But the flower is far from lonely — as three centuries of taxonomists debated its botanic affiliation, horticulturalists were in a frenzy to develop new cultivars. Its binomial nomenclature has not weakened its position as a favored specimen for hybrid enthusiasts hoping to create the perfect plant. Due to a particular breeding flurry in the Netherlands in the late 1970s, the agapanthus enjoyed a trendy popularity peak in the 1980s. In Southern California at least, this bears true: one would be hard-pressed to find an agapanthus flower bed alongside a mid-modern house. The original agapanthus (Agapanthus africanus) now presides over a court of some 600 cultivars.

And so, in exchange for years spent without a permanent family name, the international darling now has a lovely assortment of new ones: Storm Cloud, Glacier Stream, Lady Grey, Peter Pan, Lilac Time, Lilliput, Goldfinger, Back in Black, Black Pantha, Pinocchio, Ice Lolly, Castle of Mey, Dr Brouwer (as is evident in the case of the last, it is the breeders who bestow names to their new cultivars). While variations in color, size, and fragrance all distinguish the various hybrids, certain signature qualities have been preserved: bell-shaped blossoms coalesce in lollipop globes, which soar over a fountain of strappy foliage. The flowers — usually purple — blossom at staggered times, and yield small three-sided green capsules. When the seeds are mature, the leathery case dries into a papery brown sheath, revealing layers of thin overlapping seeds. The towering flower head sways on its tall pedestal stalk, and hundreds of winged black seeds tumble into the wind.

Dispersing seeds is not the wind’s only role in the plant’s life cycle. In addition to birds and insects, agapanthus flowers are also pollinated by the wind. This results in high pollination between neighboring cultivars; consequently, many agapanthus seed purveyors offer a caveat — there’s no telling what you’ll get. The progeny of a light violet specimen may seed flowers that are deep indigo, white, or pale blue — it could even have lavender-colored pollen. This variability, and the unknown seed quotient, has offered a spectrum of variation as horticulturalists craft newly colored prototypes. But, in a gesture of historical continuity, the intermingling in nature and greenhouse also continues the flower’s tendency to evade an accurate name.

The plant will, however, accept the first name it was given in 1788: agapanthus, derived from the words “agape” and “anthos,” which are Greek for flower and love. And how could one argue with that.

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