Battle lines drawn over agapanthus

19:38, Jan 16 2012
agapanthus
WONDER WEED: John McCullough of Egmont Seed Company says agapanthus are a fantastic plant for Taranaki while others disagree.

Gardening experts and bio-diversity advocates are at odds over one of New Zealand's most popular plants.

The agapanthus is loved by gardeners because it is a low-maintenance, hardy, fast-growing plant.

But these are the very characteristics that mean it should be banned from sale, according to Carolyn Lewis, national co-ordinator of Weedbusters, a collaboration of government agencies and horticultural interests.

"Weedbusters know the agapanthus is a problem plant in most regions of the country and we want to see it added to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry's national pest plant accord," she said. "This wouldn't mean people would have to remove it from their gardens, but it would stop the sale of the plant, and alongside public education this may stem its spread."

However, John McCullough, general manager of Egmont Seed Company, said this would do little to stop people using the plant.

"We don't sell agapanthus seed because it's all driven by self-propagation – people pull apart the clumps and relocate it themselves, so it's essentially unpoliceable," he said.

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McCullough also thinks the proposal to classify agapanthus as a pest plant is misguided.

"The agapanthus is actually a fantastic plant for Taranaki. If you look at any roadside or bank in Taranaki you'll see it there because it practically holds the earth together."

McCullough said the plant's tolerance for drought, wind and salt made it ideal for local conditions, and it even protected regional waterways by stopping dirt from washing into rivers and streams.

"There aren't many plants that can match its power so I would be pretty surprised if it were banned."

Although Weedbusters want the sale of agapanthus banned, this summer they are focusing on public education, and in particular holiday-home owners.

Weedbuster suggests people visiting their baches remove agapanthus and other weedy plants and replace them with better-suited alternatives, such as plants growing naturally in the area.

"In coastal areas you see weedy plants spreading from established gardens in peoples homes and baches and threatening the local eco-systems," said Lewis said.

Barry Ovenden, the Department of Conservation's biodiversity threats manager said the problem is broader than agapanthus and there are a variety of other weedy plants that cause problems in the region, such as pampas grass which is often confused with native toetoe.

In 2006 the Auckland Regional Council added agapanthus to its list of banned plants in an attempt to prevent the plant from spreading into native forest.

The verdict is still out on whether agapanthus will be added to the national pest plant accord, but MAF spokesman John Randall said a decision was likely to be made by a steering group next month or in March.

Randall said the public can make submissions until January 20 by emailing nppa@maf.govt.nz.

FACT BOX

Agapanthus is native to South Africa. Commonly known as "Lily of the Nile", although not a lily, it can be divided into three sub-species: praecox, orientalis and minimus.

The plant's seeds are usually carried by water – through drainage systems and waterways. Experts recommend control by chopping off the flower heads before seeds form.

The plant thrives in New Zealand because the frosts are not harsh enough to kill it.

Natalie Finnigan is a journalism student at Whitireia Polytechnic in Wellington.

Taranaki