These days is rare to find the smallest garden that doesn’t include at least a few early spring bulbs, even if the selection is limited to several clumps of daffodils, crocus, tulips or hyacinths. But when it comes to the early summer bulbs, especially some of the more unusual members of the allium family, even many fairly elaborate gardens come up completely lacking. This is truly a fault to be remedied, because the ornamental alliums are one of the easiest and most carefree ways to extend the spring bulb display into June. And right now, as cool autumn weather slowly returns to most of the country, is the perfect time to plan and plant for next year’s show.
As a group, the alliums, which include such culinary superstars as garlic, chives, leeks, spring onions, and shallots, as well as a host of other lesser-known ornamental species, are probably the most storied bulbs in the horticultural palette. Grown for the consumption since pre-historic times, members of the allium family were highly valued for medicinal and magical uses as well. Essential for warding off vampires and other evil creatures of the night, (in many parts of the world allium bunches continued to be hung in windows until well into the 19th century) alliums were also used internally for reducing fevers, easing bronchial secretions and cleansing wounds. Like many of these folklore tales, this one had a basis in fact, at least the medicinal portion of the belief: many species of allium, especially common garlic, contain allicin which has been proven by modern science to be a potent antiseptic.
Somewhere along the line, the long-lasting, colorful flowers of the allium family also caught the eye of ornamental gardeners. Flowering in shades of pink, yellow, blue and white, a dozen or so members of the allium tribe could be found gracing the pleasure gardens of Europe by the time of the Renaissance. Additional varieties were discovered and introduced to European landscapes during the 17th and 18th centuries, and for many gardeners, especially in Northern Europe, alliums came to be thought of almost entirely as ornamental flowers. This was particularly the case in England: long loathe to consume any of the noisome garlic tribe, (associating the group with the “lesser” cultures of the Mediterranean and the Near East) the English continued to grow most alliums primarily as ornamentals until quite recently.
While the current wild popularity of garlic has brought the culinary group of alliums more to the fore, both in American gardens and on American tables, by and large the purely ornamental types have remained remarkably under-appreciated, even by professional gardeners like myself. For years I didn’t grow a single ornamental allium, considering these “onions” fit only for the kitchen garden. This prejudice was abruptly corrected during a June garden tour a number of years back. It had been a miserable spring, cold, wet and very late. With most of the normal June bloomers still several weeks from flower, and the last of the early spring bulbs looking worn and ratty, the prospects for an interesting tour seemed rather grim. A talented gardener in one particular garden however had wisely included a number of different ornamental alliums to bridge the flower gap : the wash of the alliums’ pastel hues literally stole the entire show. Since then, I have been slowly rectifying my omission, each year experimenting with several new varieties. Here are some of the ornamental alliums I especially like:
Allium roseum. This is perhaps my favorite of all the alliums. Growing to about a foot high, allium roseum is perfect for the front of the border or rock garden, where it sends out long-lasting masses of pinkish flowers with green highlights. One of the few alliums with fragrance (other than the smell of onions, which almost all alliums release when their leaves are crushed) allium roseum makes an excellent cut flower.
Allium siculum. Native to Sicily where is grows wild on the rocky hillsides, technically this allium is not an allium at all, but a member of the closely related genus Nectaroscordam. For the home gardener though, the point is moot: this lovely little bulb produces arching clusters of 10-15 small bell shaped white blossoms which are greenish on the outside and pinkish on the inside. Growing to a little over two feet, allium siculum makes a great addition to the middle of the perennial border.
Allium sphaerocephalon. Known commonly as the drumstick allium (thankfully, as the Latin, rather difficult to pronounce, means “round skull allium”), the flowers of this beauty resemble those of its cousin, chives, only a good deal taller, rising to almost two feet. A European native, Allium sphaerocephalon (its almost unpronounceable Latin name means round-headed allium) is ideal for massing in the border, or naturalizing in wilder areas of the garden. The flowers, which have the interesting habit of turning from green to burgundy as they mature, persist for several weeks, and are a favorite for dried arrangements. (A word of caution however — when happy, this little guy will produce hundreds of tiny offspring if the flower heads are allowed to mature fully. So unless you want an much increased supply, removal of the spent blooms is advised.)
Allium aflatunense ‘Purple Sensation’. Perhaps one of the most impressive of all the alliums, this cultivar of allium aflatunense produces perfect spheres of purple-blue flowers, often 5-6 inches across, which rise on imposing stalks almost 3 feet tall. A dramatic statement in the border, ‘Purple Sensation’ acts almost like a miniature topiary when used singly; if you have the space, a massed grouping of these cerulean beauties waving gently in the wind provides a show to cheer the heart of any gardener.
All alliums are remarkably easy to grow; in fact they are one of the few species that you can generally plant and forget. (Just don’t forget where you’ve put them in the fall and dig them up during spring planting, as has often been the case in my own garden!) Generally untroubled by insect pests or disease, the alliums also have the exceedingly rare distinction of being rodent and deer proof, while attracting hummingbirds and butterflies. Most members of the family will produce leaves early in the spring, with flowers arriving here in Boston staring in May and lasting until early June. Like with most bulbs, by mid to late summer the foliage has generally died back, making alliums ideal candidates for planting wherever summer and fall blooming annuals will follow, or amidst later blooming perennials which will happily spread into their space.
So this year, when you order your fall bulbs, don’t forget to include the alliums. Not only will you successfully bridge the gap between early and late spring flowers, who knows, you might even scare away an evil spirit or two.