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"Beware the agapanthus" revisited

Posted by Keith Rennie on December 06, 2004

"Beware the agapanthus"

The posting below did not receive good answers at the time: here, five years late, is a suggested solution:

Posted by PHIL MACHIN on November 21, 1999

I am trying to find the origin of the saying "Beware the agapanthus". I know that the agapanthus is a flower (the African Lily) and that the name comes from the Greek for love (agape) and flower (anthos). But why should anyone beware this flower? Any answers would be gratefully received.

Here's my offer.

Typically British class or racist humor, a variety of dramatic irony.
I personally knew in 1955 a Scotsman who had such a sign painted and posted. Some time in the early 1950s he displayed the sign "Beware of the Agapanthus" at the boundary of an extensive church (mission) property in Blantyre, Malawi (then Nyasaland) as a means to discourage (Malawian) pedestrians from using the property as a thoroughfare. In those days "Beware of the dog" signs were common on fenced white ("European") properties and were generally respected because the dogs were much feared. The point here was that the church property had no dog, but agapanthus was indeed growing there. The people that the sign was intended for would know the word "Beware" but would not know what an agapanthus was, while all the white church people would know the flower and quite a few its Greek roots also. Therefore, Malawians were supposed to be suitably deterred, while the whites would just smile. It worked for a short time.

I doubt the Scotsman made it up himself. More likely the usage or example originated in dogless British suburbia in the 1930s or earlier to discourage vagrants. Of course, the phrase might in turn have come from a line somewhere in Hilaire Belloc or GK Chesterton or some such, but I never read it.

Has anybody heard of a similar "Beware of the Aspidistra" joke? I think I heard it said in mock seriousness to me as a young boy when visiting a home in Britain in the late 1940s or 1950s, so possibly it was quite common- perhaps even a joke on a radio show. If so, the agapanthus would have been the later colonial adaptation.

(This is intended as a new posting - apologies if it gets misplaced)