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the web of life in southern Africa

Agapanthus (agapanthus genus)

bloulelie [Afrikaans]; ubani(-oluncane), uhlakahla [Zulu]; hlakahla [Swazi]; ugebeleweni [Xhosa]; leta-laphofu [South Sotho]

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Monocotyledons > Order: Asparagales > Family: Amaryllidaceae

Six species, all endemic to southern Africa. Previously placed in the Agapanthaceae.

Species native to southern Africa

List from Plants of Southern Africa - an Online Checklist (SANBI).

Agapanthus africanus (Cape agapanthus)

Occurs in fynbos on rocky, sandy slopes, from Cape Peninsula to Swellendam in the Western Cape, South Africa. What used to be known as Agapanthus walshii has now been relegated to a subspecies of Agapanthus africanus.

Agapanthus campanulatus (Bell agapanthus)

Natural distribution includes the northeastern regions of the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State, Gauteng (all in South Africa) and Lesotho. Occurs in most grassland on rocky hillsides.

Agapanthus caulescens

Natural distribution includes KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga (both in South Africa) and Swaziland. Found in rocky areas.

Agapanthus codii

Natural distribution is limited to Limpopo Province in South Africa.

Agapanthus inapertus (Drakensberg agapanthus, Drooping agapanthus)

Natural distribution includes northern KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Gauteng and Limpopo (all in South Africa), and Swaziland. Grows on forest margins, in grassland and in the mountains.

Agapanthus praecox (Common agapanthus)

Natural distribution extends from Knysna in the Western Cape, through the Eastern Cape to southern KwaZulu-Natal. Occurs in grasslands on rocky hillsides. This is the species most commonly cultivated in gardens.

Identification of species

The taxonomy of Agapanthus has been confused due to the fact that some of the species look very similar to one another as well as because they hybridise freely under cultivation (Leighton 1965 p. 13).  For quite some time prior to Leighton's 1965 revision, all open-flowered Agapanthus were known as Agapanthus africanus and this nomenclature has fed through to the ethnobotanical and pharmacological literature. Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk (1962 p. 669) in their monumental treatise on the Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern and Eastern Africa, have quite a long section on Agapanthus africanus referring to its use by Xhosa-speaking people in the Transkei (now part of the Eastern Cape), Zulu people who traditionally lived in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, and South Sotho people who traditionally lived mainly in what is today the Free State and Lesotho. Agapanthus africanus in the restricted, modern sense is a species with a restricted distribution extending from Cape Town to Swellendam and does not grow well under cultivation (Manning et al. 2002). Clearly, therefore, Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk (1962) are referring to Agapanthus africanus in the old, broad, sense and most of what they have to say about its medicinal properties probably applies mainly to species that occur mainly in the Eswhat is now understood as Agapanthus praecox, Agapanthus campanulatus and Agapanthus caulescens. The same applies to the accounts on Agapanthus in Hutchings et al. (1996) and van Wyk et al. (2000).


Rhizomes and roots contain:

  • saponins and sapogenins (reduce inflammation [anti-inflammatory], reduce swelling [anti-oedema], suppress coughs [antitussive], help immunoregulation)
    • agapanthagenin (van Wyk et al. 2000)
    • 7-dehydroagapanthagenin (Gonzalez et al. in Hutchings et al. 1996)
    • 8(14)-dehydroagapanthagenin (Gonzalez et al. in Hutchings et al. 1996)
    • 9(11)-dehydroagapanthagenin (Gonzalez et al. in Hutchings et al. 1996)
    • yuccagenin (Gonzalez et al. in Hutchings et al. 1996)
  • chalconoids (chalcones) (have antibacterial, antifungal, antitumor and anti-inflammatory properties)
    • dihydrochalcone (Kamara et al. 2005)
    • isoliquiritigenin (precursor of dihydrochalcone) (Kamara et al. 2005)


  • In Xhosa and Zulu herbal medicine, a decoction of the root of Agapanthus (sometimes also with roots of Typha capensis [Bulrush]) is taken by women orally or rectally in the last three months of pregnancy to ensure a healthy child and ease childbirth. The decoction is said to have a mild laxative effect, it ensures that the child will not develop bowel problems, and ensures that the placenta will be born without problems. The child is evidently given the same medicine before suckling from the mother for the first time.  (Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk 1962; Hutchings et al. 1996). The decoction is also used in a more concentrated form to encourage or induce labour. It has been shown experimentally that a decoction of this sort causes smooth muscle contractions (Veale et al. 1999 and previous work).
  • In Zulu herbal medicine, root infusions are used in enemas given to young children for an ailment referred to as inyoni (Hutchings et al. 1996).
  • In South Sotho herbal medicine, a lotion is made from the crushed root of Agapanthus campanulatus and applied to a new-born child to ensure strength (Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk 1962).
  • The root of Agapanthus is beaten up in cold water together with the root of Dianthus until it froths and then the whole body is washed in the liquid to relieve paralysis that has been causing abdominal pains (Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk 1962).
  • In Zulu herbal medicine, an infusion of the root is used (how?) for treating chest troubles, especially of benefit with chronic coughs. The benefit, rather puzzlingly, comes through having an emetic (vomiting) action (Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk 1962).
  • In Zulu herbal medicine, a hot infusion of the root of Agapanthus is taken daily as an emetic (causes vomiting), to treat serious heart disease (Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk 1962).
  • The bulb of Agapanthus praecox has been used as a Zulu aphrodisiac (Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk 1962).

Toxic effects

  • Suspected of causing human poisoning through incorrect use as a medicine (Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk 1962).
  • The sap causes severe ulceration of the mouth (Veale et al. 1992 in Hutchings et al. 1996).



  • Goldblatt P. and Manning J. 2000. Cape Plants - A Conspectus of the Cape Flora of South Africa. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria and Missouri Botanical Garden Press, Missouri.
  • Hutchings, A., Scott, A.H., Lewis, G. and Cunningham, A. 1996. Zulu Medicinal Plants - an Inventory. University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg.
  • Kamara B.I., Manong D.T.L. and Brandt E.V. 2005. Isolation and synthesis of a dimeric dihydrochalcone from Agapanthus africanus. Phytochemistry 66(10): 1126-1132. doi:10.1016/j.phytochem.2005.04.007
  • Leighton F.M. 1965. The genus Agapanthus L'Hérit. Journal of South African Botany Suppl. 4: 1-50.

  • Manning J., Goldblatt P. and Snijman D. 2002. The Color Encyclopedia of Cape Bulbs. Timber Press, Portland.

  • van Wyk B.E., Oudtshoorn B. and Gericke N. 2000. Medicinal Plants of South Africa. 2nd edition. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
  • Veale D.J.H., Furman K.I. and Oliver D.W. 1992. South African traditional herbal medicines used during pregnancy and childbirth. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 36: 185-191.
  • Veale D.J.H., Havlik I., Oliver D.W. and Dekker T.G. 1999. Pharmacological effects of Agapanthus africanus on the isolated rat uterus. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 66(3): 257-262.  doi:10.1016/S0378-8741(98)00224-4
  • Watt, J.M. and Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G. 1962. The Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern and Eastern Africa. Second Edition. E. & S. Livingstone Ltd., Edinburgh.
  • Zonneveld B.J.M. and Duncan G.D. 2003. Taxonomic implications of genome size and pollen colour and vitality for species of Agapanthus L'Heritier (Agapanthaceae). Plant Syst. Evol. 241: 115-123.