Alliums a perfect solution to that
in-between Time

Martie Young
Adams County Master Gardener

It came to me early this summer that what I needed in my garden are alliums. What a perfect solution to that in-between time when daffodils and tulips are winding down and ornamental grasses are at the stage of just coming up and certainly aren’t showing any stems or flowers. Then I realized that I would have to wait because alliums are bulbs to be planted in the fall. So during the summer, when the spring bulb catalogs arrived, I chose my favorites. I found out there are many sizes and colors of alliums (also known as flowering onions). There are also alliums that bloom in the spring and others that bloom later in the summer. There are alliums with small yellow flowers (A. moly ‘Jeannine’) and alliums with almost perfect blue flowers (A. caeruleum).

The alliums I want to plant are the large showy types. The spherical heads range from baseball to softball size and even larger. They come in various shades of lavender and purple and also white. All alliums have their flowers at the end of a stiff leafless stalk. Some are short (less than a foot tall); others reach over 5 feet in height. I have chosen my favorites and am now waiting for them to arrive.

My type of gardening is to put as many plants in an area as possible. This is not a recommendation because it doesn’t always work. Invariably one very aggressive plant will crowd out something else. Nevertheless, I plan to plant my new alliums alongside my ornamental grasses. I am hoping that the spot that now has 4 or 5 ornamental grasses that are not very far along (or very colorful) in May and June will now have brilliant spots of purple color waving high above the grasses.

It isn’t necessary to order from a bulb catalog. All the garden stores and centers carry alliums along with other spring-flowering bulbs. A. hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ is a tall allium (20 to 30 inch stems) with a brilliant reddish violet ball that has the appearance of hundreds of star-shaped flowers when the bloom is open. A. ‘Globemaster’ is one of the biggest, with 8 to 10 inch silvery purple flower heads, and A. ‘Gladiator’ has large lavender-blue, fragrant tight globes the size of a softball. A. cristophii, also known as Star of Persia has masses of long-lasting, silvery amethyst flowers that form airy spheres 8 to 12 inches across. These alliums are excellent in arrangements and can be dried.

Don’t forget about white alliums. Mixing white and purple together can make a striking arrangement in your early-summer garden. Two suggestions are A. ‘Mount Everest’ and A. ’Ivory Queen.’ ‘Mount Everest’ has 4-inch pure white blooms that can make purple alliums even more spectacular.

Not all alliums have perfectly spherical flower heads. Some of the smaller cultivars have very loosely formed flower heads and can resemble woods hyacinths. These small-flowered alliums are suitable in rock gardens or as edging. Some examples are A. moly (yellow flowers), A. roseum (pale rose), A. neapolitanum (white) and A. oreophilom (deep rose). The small flowers are produced abundantly in clusters above 8 to 18 inch stems.

A. ‘Hair’ is an odd sounding name for a flower, but it’s an odd looking flower. It has hanging green leaves coming out of aerial bulbils, resembling a head full of hair, similar to the Egyptian Onion. It blooms in mid-summer.

The foliage of alliums is usually not its strong point. It may begin to wither before the blooms arrive. Most alliums have onion-like foliage, narrow and strappy. A. ‘Ivory Queen’ is an exception. The foliage is wider, more similar to tulip foliage, and the color is a handsome blue-green. You might want to plant Ivory Queen at the front of a border, as it flowers on 6-inch stems. It can also be grown in a pot or a window box.

Since the foliage will wither rather early in the summer and the blooms appear far above the foliage, it is good to interplant the alliums with other, more leafy neighbors. Try planting in groups in a mixed perennial border of iris, peonies, bleeding heart, Asiatic lilies, daylilies and hosta. Alchemilla (Lady’s Mantle) and ornamental grasses such as Pennisetum (fountain grass) are other choices that will overtake the withering leaves.

Taking care of alliums is very easy. The cultivars I have mentioned all grow in zones 4 to 7. We are in zone 6. Alliums grow from bulbs or bulb-like rhizomes. They are sun lovers and prefer well-drained, even sandy, soil. They are hardy and long-lived. Deer, mice, and chipmunks generally avoid this group. Bloom time is generally May through June. They all multiply and increase each year, providing more and more stems and blooms for years to come.

Chives and garlic chives are in the allium genus and are examples of very small blooms. Chives have lavender blooms and appear in early summer. Garlic chives are white and bloom in late summer. Both have flowers smaller than a ping pong ball. Both flowers and leaves are edible. The flowers are often used to enhance the appearance of salads and give a hint of onion flavor. Beware planting these useful plants as they reseed prolifically, although you can dehead the blooms before they go to seed. The common onion is a related plant (A. cepa) and so is garlic (A. sativum).

I hope I have given you the incentive to try a bulb you may not have tried before. There are many, many choices in the allium genus. It may be hard to stick to only a few selections. My personal philosophy is to try as many different plants as possible. I like to layer them so that I have as many plants as possible in one area. Happy gardening!

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