African Plants in American Gardens

Portion of ancient tapestry in Accra, Ghana
Detail of a hand-painted fabric I photographed in Accra, Ghana

The climates of Africa range from hot, wet tropical rain forests bordered by vast savannas to mountains, large deserts, and a mild Mediterranean climate found on both the southern and northern tips of the continent.

Croton
Croton in West Africa

Many of the African plants I enjoy in my garden are hardy herbaceous perennials and bulbs, but those unable to tolerate even mild frosts are simply grown as annuals planted from seed, or as favored potted specimen to be brought indoors in the winter.

Some I would have a hard time doing without – coffee and cotton come to mind – while others are cultural staples; what kinda Southern cook would I be without blackeye peas, okra, or fig preserves?

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Agapanthus – Lily of the Nile

Still others are ornamental mainstays, from outdoor flowers to cherished indoor potted plants. Most come with incredible stories, such as the African violet, “discovered” by European explorers in Tanga, east Africa, only in 1892 and smuggled from England to America as stolen leaf cuttings.

African Violet
African Violet “discovered” in 1892

The following list – which I’ve compiled and tweaked for over thirty years, and represents a huge portion of my own garden – is incomplete, and includes some plants which are also native to the nearby Middle East and India. Still, it’s a good overview of the most commonly-planted landscape and garden plants which have been brought to America from the African continent.

Note: To keep it simple I’m generalizing here – not distinguishing between those from northern areas along the Mediterranean, sub-Saharan, or South Africa. Anyone really interested in more detail, contact me here.   

Flowering annuals from Africa

Because these are generally cold sensitive they are typically grown for just one season, and replanted every year.

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Celosia and Periwinkle love hot climates
  • Periwinkle (Madagascar)
  • Gomphrena (bachelor buttons or globe amaranth)
  • Celosia (prince’s feather, cockscomb)
  • Impatiens (Tanzania to Mozambique)
  • Pentas
  • Joseph’s coat
  • Bottle gourd
  • Gazania
  • Hyacinth bean
  • Castor bean
  • Salvias
  • Lobelia
  • Scabiosa
  • Blackeyed Susan vine

 Perennials

These herbaceous plants are able to live for several or more years, as long as nothing catastrophic happens to them. In some areas they may need temporary cold protection.

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Milk and Wine Crinum
  • Star of Bethlehem
  • Gladiolus (South Africa)
  • Kniphofia (“red hot poker”)
  • English and Algerian ivy
  • Calla lily (South Africa)
  • Gerbera daisy
  • Amaryllis (South Africa)
  • Holly fern
  • Ice plant (S.Africa)
  • Crocosmia
  • Oxalis (S. Africa)
  • Gloriosa lily
  • Plumbago
  • Bear’s breeches (Acanthus)
  • Nerine lily
  • Society garlic (Tulbagia)
  • Lion’s ear (Leonotis)
  • Milk-and-wine lily (Crinum)

 Potted plants

These generally long-lived plants may survive mild winters but are sensitive to freezes and are usually grown in containers and brought indoors in the winter.

 

 

  • Aloes
  • Croton (Madagascar)
  • Agapanthus (Lily of the Nile)
  • Sansevieria (snake plant, mother‑in‑law tongue)
  • Asparagus ferns, including plumosa (South Africa)
  • Kalanchoe (Madagascar Island)
  • Airplane or spider plant (South Africa)
  • Geraniums (included scented)
  • Dwarf jade (Portulacaria)
  • Fountain grass (Pennisetum)
  • Fiddle‑leaf fig (western Africa)
  • Umbrella sedge
  • African violet (Tanga, East Africa)
  • Dracaena marginata (Madagascar Island)
  • Corn plant (Dracaena fragrans)
  • Areca palm
  • Plumbago
  • Euphorbias (pencil cactus, etc.)
  • Crassula
  • African Iris (Dieties)
  • Haworthia
  • Gloxinia
  • Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia)

 Vegetables of African origin

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Okra – staple of warm climate cuisine
  • Okra
  • Watermelon
  • Carrots
  • Muskmelon
  • Salsify
  • Endive
  • Chuffa (nutgrass)
  • Sesame
  • Hyacinth bean (Lablab)
  • Celery
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Borage

Miscellaneous

Original brown cotton from northern Africa
Original brown cotton from northern Africa
  • Fig
  • Cotton
  • Cassava (tapioca)
  • Sorghum
  • Millet
  • Coffee (Coffea arabica)
  • Bermuda grass
  • Variegated giant reed (Arundo)
  • Water lilies
  • Date palm
  • Buddleia
  • Some Hibiscus
  • “Ice” plant

Interestingly, though there was a pretty good trade between Native Americans before Europeans entered the picture, a few important plants from South America came to North America by way of Africa. After being “discovered” by European explorers and taken to Caribbean Islands and back to Europe, they made their way to Africa where they rapidly became local staples.  Some of these South American natives – including peppers, peanut, cassava (tapioca), croton, bird of paradise, and some gingers – were then introduced to North America from Africa by sea-faring traders – including those brought along with enslaved Africans.

Main thing is, today’s American flower and food gardens wouldn’t be the same without these favorites from African continent. There are others, of course, but these are among the most widely-grown by gardeners all over the world.

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Amaryllis from South Africa


6 Replies to “African Plants in American Gardens”

  1. Earlier, I commented to someone in South Africa about how in Europe, we know Spain, Italy, Greece, France, Germany, Portugal and so on. In South America, we know Brazil, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela and so on. In Africa, we know . . . Africa . . . maybe Egypt (Is that in Africa?) or Libya (Isn’t that in the Middle East?). Africa is bigger than either Europe or South America, but we think of it as all the same place.
    I also commented that in the garden at the Winchester House, plants are labeled with their common names, botanical names, and origin. California fan palm (the only palm that is native to California) is labeled as Washingtonia filifera (which is correct), which originated from ‘Africa’.

    Like

    1. Our own continent is as vast…and has a much richer diversity (including many genera that are nearly identical to those in Asia – from the days when we were part of Pangea…more on this soon!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A really interesting read. I wouldn’t want to be without so many of these. Crocosmia is probably my favourite. I’m guessing there are salvias that came from Europe too? It is such a wide genus.

    Like

    1. Thanks – I live in and travel from Lancashire part of the year, and think the different Crocosmia are fantastic.
      Salvia is a huge family, with many popular species from South America and Asia, though the culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) is native to the Mediterranean region…
      Kew Gardens has an extensive salvia collection…

      Liked by 1 person

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