Agapanthus africanus (L.) Hoffmanns
(Syn. Agapanthus umbellatus)
Agapanthaceae / Amaryllidaceae
Blue Lily, African Lily, Lily of the Nile; bloulelie / haaklelie (Afr), isicakathi (Xhosa), leta-la-phofu (Sotho), ubani (-oluncane) / uhlakahla (Zulu).
Bloulelie = blue lily; haak = to catch / hook; isicakathi = antenatal / postnatal medicine; leta-la-phofu = saliva of the eland (type of antelope). Uhlakahla = saliva on your pillow when you wake up in the morning (M. Thango pers. comm.).
Confusion about the meaning of Agapanthus exists. It has been translated as from the Greek ‘agape’ = love, and ‘anthos’ = flower, giving ‘love flower’ or ‘lovely flower’ (Notten 2004; Snoeijer 2004; Page 2006) but, perhaps more correctly, is from the word ‘agapeo’ meaning ‘to be well contented with’ thereby resulting in ‘the flower with which one is well pleased’ (Moore 2003; Notten 2004). ‘Africanus’ = African (Page 2006).
Classification & Taxonomic Relationships
The Agapanthaceae is a single-genus (monotypic) family containing the genus Agapanthus, all species of which are native to Southern Africa (van Wyk et al 2000; Zonneveld & Duncan 2003; Notten 2004; Snoeijer 2004; University of Connecticut 2007). Now widely distributed and prized as garden subjects and cut flowers, some species are naturalised weeds in many parts of the world.
The genus Agapanthus was established in 1788 by L’ Heritier (Duncan 2002). Agapanthus has been difficult to classify into distinct species (Notten 2004) as there are few unique characteristics and these are greatly variable depending on growing conditions and geographical location (Zonneveld in Snoeijer 2004) and species hybridise freely with other members of the genus (Huxley 1992). McNeil (1972) suggested that there was actually only one species. Leighton (1965) proposed 10 species, but Zonneveld & Duncan (2003) now propose 6 species in the genus in total, based on DNA and pollen evidence. The genus has variously been classified in the Liliaceae, Amaryllidaceae and Alliaceae, the species of which bear a close resemblance to Agapanthus. Species in the family are A. africanus, A. campanulatus, A. caulescens,A. coddii,A. inapertus and A. praecox (Zonneveld & Duncan 2003). It is difficult for untrained people to differentiate between most species. The same common name is often applied to many different species. For example, ’ubani’ is the Zulu name for A. africanus, A. campanulatus and A. praecox (Hutchings et al 1996). Medicinally, the species are often used interchangeably, on the same indications, choice of species being dependant on geographical location (van Wyk et al 2000).
It was one of the first plants to be taken by the Dutch from the Cape to the Netherlands and flowered in the garden of van Beverningk in 1679 and was described by Breyne in 1680 as Hyacinthus Africanus (Snoeijer 2004; Jamieson 2004). It became a popular conservatory and container plant and spread throughout Europe (Jamieson 2004), reaching England by 1692 where it was described growing in the garden of Hampton Court Palace (Snoeijer 2004). Elliot (2003) claims that the plant was known to Parkinson in 1629, although this may be unlikely, as the Dutch colonised the Cape only in 1652. It is possible, however, that one of the English ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope prior to the Dutch settlement may have brought a specimen to England.
An evergreen geophytic monocotyledon with long strap-like, slightly fleshy, dark-green leaves up to 15mm across and +- 350mm in length (van Wyk et al 2000; Notten 2004). The leaves arise directly from the rhizome and may form a leek-like ‘stem’ by sheathing at the base (Young 1982), before separating (Snoeijer 2004). Prominent parallel veining is apparent. The slender flower stalk is normally under 700mm long, rises from between the leaves and has a pseudoumbel [or more correctly a thyrse (Snoeijer 2004)] of pale to dark blue flowers at its apex (Jamieson 2004; Notten 2004; Snoeijer 2004). Rarely, white-flowered individuals are found. At the end of thin pedicels, are open-faced flowers which have prominent darker veins running along the centre of the 3 petals and 3 sepals, which fuse at the base to form a funnel-shaped flower (Snoeijer 2004). The flower has 6 stamens, the anthers of which produce yellow-brown pollen. The ovary is superior and 3-chambered (Zonneveld & Duncan 2003; Bean & Johns 2005). Fragrance from the flower is mostly not apparent, although a slight sweet, herbaceous scent may be noticed under some conditions. Pollination is by bees, wind and sunbirds (Jamieson 2004). Seeds are black, flat and winged (Snoeijer 2004; Bean & Johns 2005). The plant has a hard, thick, tuberous rhizome from which protrude a tangled mass of thick, fleshy, pale, juicy roots with a soft, velvety covering. Unusually for a monocotyledon, these roots are large and extensive (Grohman 1989). The plant grows in a dense, tight clump.
Native to the Cape Peninsula and Western Cape Province of South Africa (Nottens 2004). It is one of the many geophytes found in the Cape Floristic Region (‘Fynbos’). It grows from sea level to 1000m in poor, acidic, sandy soil which originates from Table Mountain Sandstone (Duncan 2002) predominantly in mountainous regions, often between rocks and even in depressions on sandstone [cf. its ability to make a good container plant] (Jamieson 2004). It is commonly found on hot, east-facing slopes (Duncan 2002). It is adapted to surviving the Cape’s Mediterranean-type climate: long, hot, dry summers and short, wet winters. It cannot withstand lengthy spells of freezing weather (Jamieson 2004). Most Fynbos plants have adaptations to help then survive the frequent fires that occur in the region. A. africanus has fleshy roots and a rhizome from which the plant will resprout after fires. Flowering is always most profuse after fire (Jamieson 2004; Bean & Johns 2005). Agapanthus species are widely grown in gardens, verges and around shopping malls or new housing developments in South Africa, where they are prized for their beauty, hardiness and ability to withstand drought conditions (Joffe 2003). However, traditional healers are reported to believe that the plant loses its healing powers when cultivated in a garden (Keirungi & Fabricius 2005). Agapanthus species have naturalised in the Scilly Isles (U.K.), California, Australia and New Zealand and have become an invasive weed in some areas (Snoeijer 2004; Moore 2003). Internationally, it is widely grown and sold as a cut flower and is often featured in many graphic designs on a wide range of items (e.g. placemats, fabrics) and in advertisements. Claude Monet painted these beautiful purple flowers with his water lilies.
Blue-purple colour in flowers: antispasmodic
Blue-purple colour in leaf base: infected states / ‘bad blood’
Moist & mucilaginous; survives long, hot summers; haven for snails: balances moist and dry
Flowers best after fire
Flowering stems phallic before bract opens
When bract opens, it splits on one side and flower-contents pour out – reminiscent of vagina and birth process
Seed capsule cocks on pedicel as it ripens: reminiscent of actin-myosin bridge in muscle contraction
van Wyk et al (2000:32) state that different Agapanthus species “are used for similar medicinal purposes”. After studying the morphology, signatures and organoleptic qualities of different Agapanthus species and cultivars, it is this author’s opinion that the species of the genus may be used interchangeably and that no significant difference in their medicinal properties exists, certainly at least for the evergreen species. The information collated below, therefore, is from all Agapanthus species.
Parts used: rhizome and roots in aqueous preparation
Agapanthus is a magical and medicinal plant, a plant of fertility and pregnancy (Notten 2004). It is primarily an antenatal and postnatal medicine administered orally or rectally as a decoction (van Wyk et al 2000) or the plant may be grown in water and this water is administered medicinally. This type of medicine is called isihlambezo in Zulu and isicakathi in Xhosa, which is also Agapanthus’ Xhosa common name. It may be used morning and evening from the 4th or 5th month of pregnancy to ensure an easy delivery and healthy child (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1962; van Wyk et al 2000; Joffe 2003). It may be taken to progress a difficult labour and to ensure expulsion of the placenta (van Wyk et al 2000; Hennop 2003). It is uterotonic (van Wyk & Gericke 2000; Steenkamp 2003) and augments uterine contractions (van Wyk & Gericke 2000). Worn as a protective charm by mothers with young babies (Hutchings et al 1996), Batten & Bokelmann (1966) write that young mothers with their first child wear a necklace of the roots constantly in order to ensure health and happiness for them both.
Bryant (1966) lists uHlakahla as facilitating delivery and procuring a retarded delivery.
Young Xhosa brides wear the roots as a necklace as they are said to ensure an abundance of children and easy childbirth (Batten & Bokelmann 1966).
The newborn baby may be washed in the decoction (van Wyk et al 2000) to make them strong (Pooley 2003) and keep them free from bowel trouble (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1962) or isicakathi may be used for a small child who is weak, fails to thrive or gets pimples on the face and bad rashes on the inner thighs or groin area (V. Mbetane, pers. comm.)
It may be used for cradle cap (Pooley 2003) or ‘crusts’ on babies heads (Hutchings et al 1996).
Agapanthus is considered an aphrodisiac (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1962; van Wyk & Gericke 2000) and Bryant (1966) lists uHlakahla as a medicine for impotency and barrenness.
Agapanthus has mild purgative (van Wyk et al 2000; Duncan 2002), aperient (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1932) and laxative (van Wyk & Gericke 2000) effects on the gastrointestinal tract and may be applied as a fomentation in severe abdominal pain of a colicky nature (with Dianthus sp.) (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1932).
Used as a body wash to treat paralysis (in combination with Dianthus sp.) (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1962; Notten 2004)
Pooley (2003) writes that it is used as a protective charm, while Hutchings et al (1996) describe its use as a protective charm against lightening and thunder and as a medicine taken by people frightened of thunder. It is also used as a love charm (Hutchings et al 1996).
Agapanthus is used together with Myosotis sylvatica in the initiation of healers (Hutchings et al 1996). This author believes that, in this instance, Agapanthus may facilitate the transition between states (see below) and Myosotis may help the initiate to remember what they are learning.
Said to assist the functioning of the kidneys (van Wyk & Gericke 2000).
Made into a paste for the treatment of swollen legs (Batten & Bokelmann 1966), the leaves are also said to be soothing for sore and tired feet (Roberts 1990).
Used for chest complaints and as an expectorant in coughs (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1962; van Wyk & Gericke 2000), including ‘long established coughs’ (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1932:17) and for colds (Notten 2004).
Bryant (1966) lists uBani as being used for symptoms of heart disease, as does Notten (2004) who includes chest pains and tightness. Agapanthus has been used in the treatment of high blood pressure and has been shown to inhibit angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) in vitro (Duncan, Jager & van Staden 1999).
Maliehe (1997) reports the use of Agapanthus as a general tonic for infants, a treatment for body rash and to alleviate the menstrual pains of women.
Leaves may be used to hold dressings in place and wound around wrists are said to bring down fevers (Notten 2004).
An infusion of powdered, sun-dried roots are taken orally for the treatment of cancer (Koduru, Grierson & Afolayan 2007)
A. campanulatus flower and leaf preparations displayed marked serotonin reuptake transport protein affinity in vitro, making it a potential treatment for depression (Nielsen et al 2004).
Toxicological Data and Modern Research
Leaf reported to cause pain and ulceration in the mouth. May irritate skin and eyes (Snoeijer 2004). Haemolytic poisoning has been suspected but not proven (Notten 2004).
Saponins and sapogenins of the furostane and spirostane type, including agapanthegenin (van Wyk et al 2000) and steroid spirostan sapogenins 7-8(14)- and 9(11)- dehydroagapanthagenin (Gonzalez et al 1974 & Gonzalez et al 1975).
Anthocyanin gives colour to flowers and plants containing anthocyanin have purple colouration in leaf base (Snoeijer 2004).
Isoliquiritigenin, a chalcone and a dimeric dihydrochalcone are found in the roots (Kamara et al 2005).
Touch: velvety exterior; crunchy; moist, but not mucilaginous.
Smell: fairly bland, like raw potato
Taste: sweet & astringent. Marked astringency. Only tiny hint of acridity.
Touch: Smooth and cool. Mucilaginous, slimy material exudes particularly from near base.
Smell: Green; herbaceous; sweet.
Taste: Initially sweet, then a soapy bitterness develops into a mild acridity which irritates the back of the throat, particularly the fauces.
Touch: moist; soapy
Smell: faint sweet scent with green notes
Taste: initially sweet & green rapidly becoming soapy and bitter, then acrid, especially affecting soft palate and uvula, leaving a persistent dry sensation in the nasopharynx, aggravated by swallowing.
Systematic Contemplative Study Results
A four-stage phenomenological process of a Goethean Science study was undertaken and combined with information from observations of plant signatures.
Preparatory Stages / Intuitive Precognition
The initial contact with the plant produced a number of thoughts and sensations:
‘Joy’. A positive plant. Upward and outward energy. Outward looking. Pushed up and out in all directions. ‘A snake in the grass’.
These intuitive precognitions were acknowledged, recorded and then ‘bracketed’ or left alone while further study was undertaken (Brook 2003:12), although they are of interest in the light of Agapanthus being a potential medicine for depression (Nielsen et al 2004).
Stage 1: Exact Sense Perception (Brook 2003; Wahl 2005)
The physical structure of Agapanthus was studied in minute detail for 18months, observing all parts of the plant in all its phases of growth by drawing and photographing it, growing the plant from seed, using organoleptic assessment and making preparations from it.
Stage 2: Exact Sensorial Imagination (Bortoft 1996) / Exact Sensorial Fantasy (Brook 2003)
Once the author had analytically investigated the plant in the present, how it IS, Stage 2 was commenced. The author attempted to perceive how the plant had become what it is.
This involved looking at different stages of growth of the plant, how it grew, rooted, shooted and flowered and being able to –imaginatively – ‘live into’ or ‘swim with’ this growth process (Colquhoun & Ewald 1996:169).
Stage 3: Seeing in Beholding (Wahl 2005)
During the 18 month observation period, flashes of insight or ‘Ah-ha!’ moments (Wahl 2005) occurred. The most significant of these was the realisation that the seed capsule cocks on the end of the pedicel as it ripens, changing from a straight line to nearly 90 degrees with the pedicel. This signature reminded the author of the formation of the actin-myosin bridge in muscle contraction. The common potential link between many of Agapanthus’ uses was then apparent. Agapanthus helps muscles to contract correctly – it is used in parturition, expelling the placenta, dysmenorrhoea, cardiac problems, paralysis, colicky abdominal pain, coughs etc – all problems potentially related to muscle activity.
Stage 4: Being One with the Object / Being the Being (Brook 2003; Wahl 2005)
Many intense insights occurred when, on a number of occasions, the author placed himself in a calm, relaxed state and mentally ‘grew’ the plant in all its observed detail, ‘feeling in’ to the root, rhizome, flower and shoot as it grew. That is, in the mind’s eye, recreating the plant from all the data collected in Stages 1, 2 & 3. This resulted in a number of thoughts and feelings, impressions, flashes of insight and the experience of a number of symptoms in the investigator’s body.
Homeopathic Pathogenetic Experimentation
- Type of Proving: Other: n=1
- controls: none
Materia Medica Summary
Feel weighted down; pressing down on head and shoulders.
Nausea. Stomach turning; churning in epigastrium.
Nausea in epigastrium and about the navel with concomitant salivation. Tension in epigastrium.
Desire to bend forwards; bend double; scrunch up. (cf. desire to arch back)
Palpitations and awareness of the heart, aching in the praecordial region with extension of aching pain down left arm.
Desire to bend backwards, to arch back. Perhaps of use in opisthotonus and tetanus or neonatal tetanus, particularly when one compares the traditional practice of dressing umbilical cord with dung and the use of this medicine in neonates.
Aching down left upper limb approximately down Large Intestine Channel. Splaying of hands.
Actions, Energetic Patterns, Tissue States, Constitutions and Affinities
Oxytocic. Uterotonic. Cardiac. Stomachic. Pectoral. Expectorant. Aperient. Purgative. Nephritic. Anti-hypertensive.
Affinities: Uterus. Muscle: smooth, cardiac, skeletal. Female reproductive. Mucous membranes.
Constitutions & Tissue States: Tones and astringes Relaxation /Damp-flowing tissue state; moisturises Dry Atrophic Tissue State and relaxes Wind/ Constricted Tissue State (Wood 2004; Wood pers. comm..). Pitta conditions (astringent, bitter, cool)
Clinical Uses and Cases
None available at present.
Preparations and Dosage
Aqueous extractions are recommended. Long cold infusion, hot infusion or decoction. Aqueous extraction may be preserved with enough ethanol to bring the ethanol concentration up to 20%, or an equal quantity of glycerine may be added to the aqueous extract.
Summary and Comparisons
Agapanthus is a medicine for transition periods in one’s life. It is traditionally used by women making the transition to becoming mothers and it is used to wash the newborn to help them become strong and adapt to their new situation. It is also worn by Xhosa brides at their wedding when they make a major transition to married life and used by traditional healers undergoing their initiation. It may have a wider application to many transition periods in life (similar to the Bach Flower remedy Walnut). It strengthens one to deal with new situations, its moist, mucilaginous nature easing and lubricating change and transition.
Agapanthus flowers most profusely after fires and survives them by having many fleshy underground roots. Fire brings change and transformation. Agapanthus may help some people who are afraid of change: “store your reserves in a safe, earthy place to avoid being burnt”.
While observing the flower head, the author had a mental image of going down a dark tunnel towards light. The connection was made to the birth process and the use of isicakathi to facilitate it. He was struck by the growth pattern and flow of energy in the plant (gesture): the thick roots converge on a dense rhizome which in turn pushes leaves out and up and a flowering spike that travels up and then spreads out in all directions, with even the flowers opening out and the tepals curling backwards. There is a feeling of condensation, of confinement, travelling along a narrow tunnel and out into the world, bursting out and expanding. “I’m dying / bursting to get out, let’s get on with things”. It may be useful for “rebirthing” or “coming out”.
Agapanthus likes to be confined. It forms dense clumps and does well as a pot plant especially when pot-bound, when it flowers more profusely. Confining the roots leads to more profuse flowering: “the more I am confined, the more I flower”. “Being confined results in fruitful activity”. Agapanthus is a medicine for people who feel confined or restricted. It helps them to expand out into the world, giving them the strength to do it. Conversely, it may be useful for people who need to be confined, people who are “all over the place” and need pulling in and directing along a narrower, more defined path. They need to feel secure / confined before they can flower. It is also tempting to make a connection between this theme of confinement and the old use of the word, which is a synonym for giving birth.
Agapanthus may be a medicine for claustrophobic states or states preceded by sensations of elation, expectation or nervousness with concomitant tension in the throat or globus hystericus. It may be useful for anxiety and tension in anticipation of an event. It is traditionally used for people who fear thunder. In Zulu medicine, lightning brings disease (Ngubane 1977). Agapanthus may be useful for people who have a fear of disease. It is also interesting to note in this regard its use to strengthen infants, possibly through fear that they will get ill.
Agapanthus helps to make ones mood more expansive, bringing one joy. It opens up the chest and allows the emotions in and out. It imparts gladness, delight and an outpouring of love. It is uplifting. It may therefore be of use in the Heart or Shen disturbances of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
There is a tension in Agapanthus between patience and impatience, between being held back and pushed out. “Held back” could relate to immaturity, or delay in developmental milestones, which are major transition periods in childhood. The root of the plant is very astringent. Astringency tends to adjust and balance tensions in the body. The blue-purple colour of its flower is a signature for antispasmodic activity (Wood 2004). Antispasmodics adjust tensions by modulating muscle tone. It is interesting to note that Sankaran (2002) lists “forced out”-“must hold on” as major sensations of the Liliales and Agapanthus must therefore be related medicinally as well as taxonomically.
The cocking of the seed capsule on the pedicel (actin-myosin bridge) as it ripens and the blue-purple flower colour (antispasmodics) are signatures that, when taken with its traditional uses, point to Agapanthus as a pre-eminent medicine for many muscular problems. Smooth, cardiac and skeletal muscle fibres are all affected. Agapanthus works by ensuring proper action between actin and myosin filaments and developing the proper lubrication for the muscle to contract. It may be indicated in many muscular disorders, especially those involving cramp, pain and /or atrophy (dryness) of the muscle. It should balance muscular tension. It may also make you strong and help you move out into the world.
Snails and slugs find shelter in Agapanthus plants which have a reputation amongst gardeners as being havens for these creatures. Snails like Agapanthus’ cool, moist, mucilaginous nature. These properties, combined with a strong astringent taste (drying) mean that Agapanthus should be useful for balancing wet and dry in the body and should have an affinity to watery parts of the body (such as the pregnant uterus). It has been used to treat swollen legs (oedema) which are often a sign of liver, kidney, heart disease or hormonal changes that leads to accumulation of fluid in dependant areas. Agapanthus has been used for kidney disease and heart disease and its steroidal saponins make it a potential remedy for treating hormonal disturbances. The common names of the plant (uhlakahla; leta-la-phofu) and its copious saliva-like mucilage point to an effect on the mouth, salivary glands and mucous membranes. An indication for Agapanthus may be dryness of the mouth (its astringent root has an incredible drying effect) or excess salivation.
The strong sexual signatures in this plant have probably led to it being used as an aphrodisiac. The flowering spikes are unmistakeably phallic and then, as the bract opens, it splits on one side looking vagina-like and spills out its contents in a floral birth process. The author would suggest this plant for male and female infertility and impotence, especially when dryness or excess, poor-quality sexual fluids or secretions are playing a role. Its steroidal saponin content may provide a hormone modulating effect.
Compare: Liliaceae. Amaryllidaceae. Alliaceae. Asparagaceae. Asparagus racemosa.
available on request
© Dr Craig Wright 2010