You turn the corner and there it is — a swath of agapanthus in full bloom. The sight typically takes one’s breath away for a moment and certainly elicits a few gasps from surrounding onlookers. Let’s face it: Agapanthus is one of those dreamy blue-flowering plants that evokes undeniable excitement and impulse purchases amongst gardeners.
Few cultivated plants are immune from changing consumer trends and the critical eye of breeders, and agapanthus are no exception. The South African natives have been experiencing a resurgence of interest and breeders are working hard to produce improved selections. If you haven’t paid attention to some of the new emerging options, you might want to take a closer look.
I touched base with Morten Damsted of KiwiFlora Nurseries in New Zealand, and Jonathan Pedersen of Monrovia here in the U.S., to find out what recent agapanthus breeding trends they’ve observed. The “most popular color in agapanthus today is deep blue with a compact habit, with plants no more than 2 feet tall and preferably shorter,” Damsted says. Pederson reinforces that consumers are space-strapped and seeking out more compact, dwarf selections with repeat or longer bloom times. Essentially, customers need more bang for their buck, but in a fraction of the space they used to have.
Finding a size balance
As in fashion and home decor, color trends are always changing. Preferences for certain colors come and go and we see these preferences play out in plant purchases. Pederson notes a growing preference for deep blues over light or white flower shades.
Both Pederson and Damsted contend that consumers, especially retail customers, are still looking for something a bit more unusual. One color may just not be enough anymore. “There is some new breeding work being done around the world right now and we’re just starting to see some new selections with bi-colored blooms hitting the market” says Pederson. One such new bi-color bloomer is ‘Twister.’ Pederson advises growers and retailers to keep a close eye on bi-color agapanthus as a growing trend over the next few years.
In addition to bi-color varieties, picotee flowers are also making an appearance. ‘Sarah,’ a new KiwiFlora introduction, sports lilac picotee flowers. The ruffled petals are an eye-catching sight and the flowers will reposition themselves upright, which is unique for agapanthus.
You should know that it’s not all about the flowers when it comes to new agapanthus breeding. Variegated foliage is making a big statement with some of the newer releases. ‘Gold Strike,’ in particular, makes for quite the show with its deep navy-blue flowers and bright foliage.
Out of bounds
There are bigger concerns than just real estate when it comes to agapanthus species. Damsted warns that in both New Zealand and Australia there is growing concern that the standard tall species of agapanthus are becoming problematic invasive weeds in some of the more sensitive ecosystems. It’s the assertive re-seeding that’s causing the problem. Plant sterility is becoming a sought-after trait.
Pederson agrees and states that for Monrovia, “the real improvements are in developing varieties that are seedless and are of smaller scale.”
Keep it fresh for customers
Retailers need to be able to get their hands on more unique perennial varieties from their growers in order to keep their customers happy and inventory turning. While landscape contractor customers may still tend to stick to more tried and true plant material, even they are beginning to branch out a bit to try more unique perennials, especially ones that tolerate heat and drought. Many are turning to new agapanthus varieties to make their low-maintenance landscapes pop.
Hot and cold
Agapanthus are generally considered to be good options for hot and dry climates, and they can take a beating during summer months in very hot southern and southwest climates. In my Texas garden, some afternoon shade is required to keep agapanthus happy.
Cold tolerance can also be a limiting factor across many climates. When asked about any new developments in cold temperature tolerance, Pederson said Monrovia offers up Midknight Blue, which he considers a true Zone 6 selection with improved cold tolerance. Damsted highlights his white selection ‘Pavlova’, which he says “is more tolerant of both heat and cold. In winter it goes dormant, which affords it a lot of protection.”
Asking a horticulturist or breeder to choose a favorite plant is always a loaded question. Yet I did manage to pin both Damsted and Pederson down on some of their favorite new agapanthus options. Damsted admits it was a tough question, but offers that “Agapanthus ‘Pavlova’ is the best white we have seen and is hardier; yet ‘Brilliant Blue’ is well… brilliant. I can’t choose.” I’d say there is room for both at the top of the list.
‘Baby Pete’ tops the list of Pederson’s favorite new varieties due to its compact size, dark blue flowers and almost seedless nature. Baby Pete is a dwarf variety that produces masses of blue flowers just above the foliage. “It’s much improved over ‘Peter Pan,’” he says.
On the horizon
According to Damsted, Kiwiflora has picked up on the sterile breeding direction and is working with their breeders on solutions. KiwiFlora is also collaborating with one of New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes to develop a totally sterile agapanthus. Damsted claims initial trials are “looking good,” so be sure keep your eye out for these promising new introductions.
No specifics yet from Monrovia on upcoming releases, but Pederson hints at some possible options. “We have some selections from Dan Hinkely that are not ready for prime time yet,” he says, “but plant habit and color look very exciting.”