If you think of onion, leek or chive when you hear the Latin or botanical word Allium, you are exactly right. But there are more than 400 species of the genus Allium, and many of them are ornamental, not edible, and can add drama and beauty to the garden.
Alliums, which were known in ancient Egypt and Babylonia, range in size from eight inches to over five feet and can therefore make a variety of statements in the garden, from discreet to stupendous. The larger ones, with their round clusters of flowers, have been described as "giant, upside-down exclamation points."
The small to middle-sized ones can be planted in masses; restrain yourself when you purchase the very large ones. You don't want your garden to look like a beachball sale.
While a few varieties are sold as plants, most grow from bulbs, making this the season to plant them. Many bloom in the late spring and give a lively contrast to the more standard tulips, peonies and iris. They vary in appearance, of course, but generally the bulb sprouts a base of thick dense leaves, followed by a slender stalk with a globe-shaped flower head, bearing a dense number of florets.
Some of the smaller ones have slender leaves like chives. The flower heads can be pink, white, blue, yellow, purple, lavender or dark red. Most prefer sun but several can perform in shade.
Alliums come from all over the world, from Turkestan to China. One native allium is nodding pink onion (A. cernum), which is 12 to 16 inches tall, light pink and blooms in late spring.
Its florets are loosely packed and, as its name suggests, nod or droop. Another native that can get a little taller and has slighter larger blooms than A. cernum is the lavender pink A. unifolium. Like many Alliums, it naturalizes profusely. A very popular allium of comparable size and blooming time but sky-blue color is A. caeruleum (azureum), which has been around since 1792.
While not the largest by far, perhaps the most unusual allium is A. schubertii. It blooms in late spring and grows from one to two feet, and its long-lasting rose pink flowers are irregular in length, creating a spidery, almost other-worldly look. A. schubertii is from Palestine and sensitive to frost, so mulch it carefully. It forces well.
Many large alliums have big, broad leaves, which, when bruised, often smell of onion, so you might not want to plant them by a doorway.
A. siculum, now Nectaroscordum siculum, is said to have the strongest smelling foliage. Giganteum has enormous purple flower heads, six inches across in early summer on top of three- to four-foot-tall stems; its foliage browns just as it blooms, so plant something in front of it.
A few Allium species have interesting foliage. Karataviense 'Ivory Queen' has ivory flower heads and blue foliage, while the fall-blooming Ozawas allium (A. thunderbergii 'Ozawas'), whose flowers are reddish violet in September, has orange foliage as temperatures drop.
Some flowers are pleasantly scented, such as 'Lucy Ball,' which is dark rosy lilac and three to four feet tall, and atropurpureum, which has dark wine red, almost black, florets atop 20- to 30-inch stems. 'Gladiator,' with its lavender-blue florets, has a sweet pungent scent.
Alliums differ in color, height, leaf type, scent, sun requirements and season of bloom, so be careful what you order. They are advertised as rodent and deer resistant, but a friend says that the deer sure do chomp her A. giganteum flower heads. (Many alliums that I saw in the catalogs are inexpensive, such as 10 for $6.95, 50 for $14.75) and many naturalize happily.
Their blooms last up to a month and are long-lasting cut flowers. Their seedheads turn golden brown, adding interest and texture to the garden and to dried arrangements.
lant alliums in the fall. Generally, plant the bulb at least twice as deep as the bulb's height. Some varieties have large bulbs, so be ready to dig. Once you've dug the hole, mix a teaspoon of bulb food with soil. The bulb goes in pointy end up. Cover with dirt. After growth emerges in the spring, add fertilizer.
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