Native plants vs Agapanthus

A while back I was in the largest chain of hardware/garden/etc stores’ local (Melton) outlet and saw a big selection of Agapanthus lilies for sale in the “Native Plants” section.

According to the informative article here, the “Black Pantha” variety produces few if any viable seed, which is a bonus. I don’t know about the other varieties that were on offer, though. The plant can become a weed in areas with a suitable climate. It’s native to South Africa, like a lot of our worst ecological weeds.

This is clearly not a native! I could leave it at that as a comment on the uselessness of big chain stores, but let’s explore this a bit more.

Agapanthus. Not a native.
“Native” Agapanthus liles on sale at Bunnings, 2014.

Obviously it’s a popular plant: weedy potential or not, they are all over the place like a rash. The long flowering season and low maintenance requirements make it a good one for lazy gardeners. Fortunately in our rainshadow area it’s too dry for them to spread much. Not so, in wetter regions.

What does it contribute? Personally I find the colours a bit plasticated and poxy. Others will disagree. The proprietor at Lambley Nursery advocates for Agapanthus and notes that the common New Holland Honeyeater visits the flowers. +1 in its favour, then.

But given that the plant is often basically a gap-filler or border plant, are there native alternatives? Dianella species would be one fantastic alternative, forming a low spreading clump of attractive dark-green and red-tinged leaves, with clusters of delicate blue and yellow flowers, followed by attractive blue berries (far more attractive than the cruddy seedheads that follow flowering on Agapanthus). Check it out this photo on Flickr.

They say there’s no accounting for taste; Agapanthus is not especially to mine. I’ll readily concede that anyone who cares about their garden ought to plant things they like, which will make them happy to look at (although generally not environmental weeds).

But there’s no reason to be blinkered or complacent in what you appreciate, and commercial nurseries really need to take a lead in showing some of the indigenous options, which are likely to provide much better support to native birds and other animals, and there are enough that there’s sure to be something to most people’s taste.

Here’s a list of local tussocky species that might fill the same gaps as Agapanthus,  all with their own unique charm. A massed planting might be needed to achieve the same physical presence, but this is common with Agapanthus too.:

  • Flax lilies (several Dianella species)
  • Silky blue-grass Dichantheum sericeum
  • Knobby club-rush Ficinia nodosa
  • Spiny-headed mat-rush Lomandra longifolia
  • Tussock grass Poa labilliardieri

And for similar size, but in shrubs:

  • Hop Goodenia Goodenia ovata
  • Scented groundsel Senecio odoratus
  • Drooping Cassinia Cassinia arcuata
  • Austral indigo Indigofera australis
  • Australian hollyhock Malva preissiana/weinmanniana
  • Fragrant saltbush Rhagodia parabolica
  • Desert cassia Senna artemisioides

A good guide is Plants of Melbourne’s Western Plains. Alternatively, enter any of these species into a google image search for an idea.

So get down to your nearest indigenous plants supplier and give it a go.

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