Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

SocietyFebruary 21, 2021

The agapanthus city

Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

John Summers recalls the delight of seeing agapanthus when he first moved to Wellington, and how they’ve come to represent the perfect imperfection of his home city.

Lately, the book I find myself returning to again and again is one featuring Hairy Maclary and his friends. This isn’t by choice, at least not mine, but it could be worse. Having memorised the words after so many rereads for my son, I am free to enjoy Lynley Dodd’s artistry, specifically the backgrounds to the antics of those famous dogs, the way in which she depicts suburban New Zealand with just a few telling elements: the weatherboards and doorsteps, the flax poking over the picket fence. No one piece can set the scene, they work together to create the bungaloid world that is the backdrop to our lives, but there is one detail that does come close: the agapanthus which Hairy Maclary happily trots by.  

These plants are the filler of many banks and concrete beds, and many more areas of dry soil along driveways and under trees, beside garages and public toilets. They also, I think, place Maclary’s world as the North Island. While they’re found in the South, I don’t believe they are as common. Then again, maybe my memory is faulty and I failed to notice them in the years I spent growing up in Christchurch. Still, one memory is clear. I was in my early 20s, and it was the summer I moved to Wellington. I had been to some event at the botanic gardens, and walking back through them, the night air was warm, was velvet. The evening felt potent, the city still new enough then to hold mystery and feel like a place where things might happen.

I passed through a glade, steep banks were on either side and these were a deep green of strappy, glossy leaves and purple flowers, their colours made deeper and intense by the shade of the trees and the punga above. The space seemed tropical, exotic, unlike anything in Christchurch. More sophisticated somehow, and it confirmed something for me, the idea that, in moving to Wellington I had chosen the right setting, the proper backdrop for the life I wanted to have.  

I have been back to those gardens and I have lived in Wellington, off and on, for many years since, never able to leave its orbit entirely. Lately I see the gardeners have put up signs that are defensive about the presence of agapanthus, and explain their experiments in finding varieties that are less invasive. A reflection of their current status as a weed, a pest according to many councils. It wasn’t always so. Agapanthus are South African originally, also known as the Lily of the Nile, and were brought here quite deliberately. Another item, along with rabbits and gorse, on our long list of wrong-headed imports. 

It is the same qualities that have drawn people to agapanthus that make them a problem. They thrive in clay and crap soil, in the dry and the shade. Places where not much else would like to live. To these unlikely zones they bring their space-filling properties, their substantial roots holding banks in place. But from these unappealing perches they spread, moving outward and crowding out anything else.

At my own home, I have dug them out and discovered the fleshy rhizomes underneath the leaves and flowers: alien, spongey things that look like props from a David Cronenberg film. They are easily and quickly sliced with a sharp spade. Short work which, unless every fragment is dug out, is only temporary. Each piece left in the ground can hold life, send a new set of roots down, and new leaves up. They are resistant even to Roundup. I work away knowing I will always have agapanthus. 

I am digging them out because I have come to see them as pest too. It is tempting, in approaching this subject, to play the contrarian and to come to their defence. I could, after all, argue for their distinctive purple, their luscious leaves. But, riding the bus along Wellington’s twisting streets to get to work, I see this purple constantly, the same exact shade, banked along fences, spilling over concrete. Seen en masse, that green, that purple is flattened, becomes as constant as the wind in this city, as the civil servants necking craft beer on a Friday night.

These comparisons I’ve chosen purposefully, because, lately, Wellington, like agapanthus, has taken a clobbering. There are sinkholes and burst pipes, rising rents and unaffordable homes. Its best days are long behind it, wrote Andrea Vance for Stuff. And those old, risible slogans, the “coolest capital” and “Absolutely Positively Wellington” have been left behind, now quoted only to mock. 

As a resident, I take no joy in this, but neither do I rush to its defence. My own impatience with Wellington came long ago. I found myself bristling at those slogans, and came to see that the much-vaunted cafes and bars, the walkable central city, where it is said, lurks an arts community, were only a small portion of my life here.

The larger part was spent in offices where people talked of policy, and in walking back and forth from these offices in wind or rain or both. Once, on the Terrace I found myself alongside a young man as we walked into particularly brutal, horizontal rain. He was a stranger, but turned to me and expressed my very thoughts. “This is bullshit,” he said.

And yet, here I am. For all its faults, this city is where I have made friends and where I now weed the garden. It’s where I have been to parties and job interviews, and was once ushered into a room to be considered but rejected for jury service. It is where my partner and I make our home. It is where we watch our son grow. Everything, then, I hoped for, the backdrop to the life I have. Nothing is as murderous as expectations. And so, the streets of the gleaming city by the sea become the route for the bus, and the lily of the Nile becomes, always was, plain, old agapanthus.

Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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