Allium makes a big statement Garden: Plant these bulbs now, and they will produce colorful blossoms in the spring.

October 25, 1998|By Carol Stocker | Carol Stocker,BOSTON GLOBE

Long underappreciated, alliums are finally beginning to get their due. Most of these fall-planting bulbs are disease-free and cheap. They don't attract pests, and deer or voles, which love tulips, usually take a pass on alliums.

The best known is Allium giganteum, which is indeed the giant of the genus. It produces grapefruit-size globes of purple flowers on 5-foot stalks that give whimsy and height to late spring gardens and make a big impression.

It's now being rivaled by a new showstopper named 'Globemaster' with an even larger ball of denser, longer-blooming flowers that last a month because they're sterile. When they were introduced several years ago, at about $20 a bulb, you had to take a mortgage out to buy enough for an effect. But the price is coming down rapidly as stock grows, and now 'Globemaster' can be had for less than $5 per bulb.

'Globemaster' bulbs often split after the first year, resulting in smaller subsequent flower heads. You propagate it by digging up and separating the bulbs after blooming every few years. Or if they don't thrive for you, renew the planting with new purchases, says Mark McDonough, an allium authority.

Though these giant early-blooming alliums grab all the attention, there are many smaller, inexpensive alliums, and some later ones, too.

About a third of the thousand alliums in the genus aren't bulbs at all, but perennials growing on roots called rhizomes. Because these must be bought in pots from perennial nurseries rather than shipped by bulb companies, they are less common.

Rhizomatous alliums grow in clumps and retain their leaves, so they can be used like any other perennial. But most bulbous alliums grow on long, naked stalks with negligible foliage at the base and require some thought to site. Dotting them through drifts of other lower-growing perennials is one solution to the problem of bare ankles.

I use my imposing 'Globemaster' alliums like living topiary. Each is planted singly in the center of a square of ground covers surrounded by paving for a formal geometric effect that plays off the perfect spheres of the alliums.

Most of the alliums planted in the fall as bulbs bloom in late May and early June, when a show is needed during the lull between the end of the tulips and the beginning of flowering perennials.

Most allium bulbs produce globes comprised of hundreds of tiny flowers on naked stalks with a little fading foliage around their base. It's that perfect roundness that give them their charm. They look like lollipops.

There are hundreds of varieties to chose from. Here's some of the best and most commonly available:

* A. aflatunense 'Purple Sensation' has intense color on 2-foot stems in early June. Plant them 5 inches deep and 12 inches apart in drifts of a dozen or so where day lilies, phlox, yarrows and other mid-season plants will take over later. 'Purple Sensation' will self-seed where it's happy, or the bulbs can be dug up in the fall and divided.

* A. bulgaricum has exotic clusters of green and white bells flushed with purple on 3-foot stems. Though a member of alliaceae family and sold as an allium, it is really a member of a different genus, nectaroscordum. The seed pods look like something from outer space.

* A. caeruleum, also known as azureum or blue garlic, has foot-tall flower stalks that produce their small but true-blue spheres in May after the foliage has disappeared. They peter out after a year or two.

* A. christophii, also known as A. albopilosum, 'Star' or 'Persia,' is widely considered the best ornamental allium, and usually sells out early from bulb catalogs. The shiny metallic lavender globes are 10 inches wide though the stalks are only a foot high. Comprised of hundreds of star-shaped blooms, like the other "lollipop" alliums, it adds a touch of magic growing through other perennials such as sedum 'Autumn Joy,' both when in flower and after it has dried to a tan skeleton. It prefers a little bit of moisture and shade (it also makes a wonderful dried flower).

* A. karataviense has 5-inch spheres of white composite flowers shaded light rose-violet on 8-inch stems. The broad glaucous, pleated leaves have reddish edges and are much showier than the negligible foliage of most bulbous alliums. Like most, however, they need good drainage and like a sunny hillside.

* A. moly is another easy allium. It prefers light shade and tolerates more moisture than most alliums, making it an acceptable choice for woodland plantings. The gray-green leaves are attractive, disappearing in late summer, and the buttercup yellow flowers bloom on foot-high stalks in June. It grows well in dry part-shade - under oak trees, for instance, where few other plants will thrive.

* A. ostrowskianum is among the easiest alliums to grow, especially when planted in a dry, sunny spot. This 4-inch-tall charmer of bright carmine blooms in June. It will bloom well if it likes its location; shyly if it does not.

* A. spaerocephalon is the popular drumstick allium. Easy to grow in a sunny spot, it has oval flower heads of reddish-purple on 2-foot stalks in midsummer. As with other "lollipops," it's best to plant it growing through low perennials such as geraniums so the stalks don't look too bare. It will build steadily into a sizable clump.

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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