Alliums - An Onion Could Be So Beautiful - Who Knew?

Posted by Peter Dowdall on

To plant Alliums or any spring bulbs truly is to believe in tomorrow.

I still remember, as a small child, the bulb display in what was Atkins McKenzies Garden Centre on Camden Quay in Cork city, the all-permeating, aroma of the bulbs and the sawdust in which they were packed.

I recall being entranced by the sheer range of bulbs on offer, like a child in the horticultural equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

Now as an adult I still delight when the bulbs arrive and, as excited as a child anticipating Christmas morning, I look forward to the promise of the following spring. 

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I may be more aware now of the ranges and the different varieties available but still, each autumn, I get excited. 

As gardeners we always need to be thinking a season or two ahead of ourselves. One gardening job, that needs to be done during autumn and winter is the planting of flower bulbs for wonderful spring displays next year.

This often seems like a thankless job, a lot of bending over and digging which invariably leads to a bit of weeding and cutting back as one task leads to another with no instant reward — just blank soil with treasures now hidden beneath.

After planting, I need to fight the urge to go back outside to see if they’re up yet. Foolish I know, and this urge will pass as something else more mundane takes my attention and I forget all about them — until I see their delicate looking, elegant flower heads atop erect slender stems next spring.

The only way to stop the obscene over-use of unnecessary plastic is if us consumers refuse to purchase it.

My own bulbs, thankfully are delivered in timber crates with no plastic.

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Last year the Allium ‘Ambassador’ bulbs which I was planting were a magnificent size. One bulb covered the entire palm of my hand, it was so large and healthy-looking. 

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I compared it with a prepacked bulb from a local garden centre, both, the same variety and the same price but the flower bulb that came with the pretty glossy picture was less than half the size of the one which had been supplied to me loose in a crate. 

As is so often the case, much of the purchase price is wasted on packaging.

‘Ambassador’ is one of the most stately and elegant of all the ornamental onions, not to mention that the proper name sounds so much nicer. 

Each flower stem will grow to about one metre in height and each perfectly formed, globe-shaped flower will reach about 20cm-25cm in diameter, a rich purple in colour.

Look closely and you will see that each globe is made up of many, many, tightly packed, tiny purple flowerlets.

Allium Gladiator which is slightly paler in colour and has slightly more open flowers will grow to 1.2m in height with big clusters of flowers during late April into May.

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I have planted a group of five of them next to Heuchera Marmalade whose foliage provides a beautiful underplanting to the flowers on the Allium. I like to underplant my Alliums with plants that somewhat obscure the tall, lanky flower stem and this have the effect of the flowers floating above the other plants.

The foliage of the Allium is the first part of the plant to emerge from the soil in the spring-time. 

Fresh, lush leaves announce the Alliums re-awakening after its winter slumber and with this, also, the renewed promise of the growing season ahead. 

Don’t panic then, when after a few short weeks this foliage begins to wither and shrivel up, for this is the way of the Allium. 

The foliage becomes very untidy looking as the energy from the bulb goes into producing the beautiful rich purple flowers. 

I remove the dead-looking leaves with scissors so that they don’t take from the beauty of the flowers.

Plant them with some good, low-growing attractive plants such as the aforementioned Heuchera or for a really dramatic effect, some tightly pruned Buxus sempervirens domes.

Allium ‘Mount Everest’ is another relatively tall variety with striking, pure white blooms. Again, the foliage will wither and die back so I have planted mine with an established planting of Heuchera Berry Smoothie.

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Allium christophii has been planted next to Stipa Ponytails for I love the open flowers produced by christophii mixed with the light and airy ornamental grass. The flowers have a nearly metallic appearance when in full bloom.

The effect of the alliums growing through the grass and the nearly fairylike flower above the airy grassy foliage can be somewhat dreamlike. 

Allium karataviense is one of my absolute favourites and I have planted a good number of them quite simply in terracotta pots about three to each pot. No need for a foliage companion here as it is the fat wide leaves that are one of the most attractive features of this species.

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You will get the same effect planting Allium karataviense ‘Ivory Queen’ the only difference is that this cultivar produces beautiful white Allium blooms unlike the species which will give you beautiful purple flowers.

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Growing to only about 20cm (6-8”) in height this is a lesser grown type and once you have introduced it to your garden you will truly fall in love with it, as the white flowers open on short squat stems just above those wide luxuriant leaves.

Don’t be in a rush to remove the flower stalks as soon as the flower colour has dissipated as I think the seed heads too, bring their own charm to the garden. 

They continue that structural, summery effect in a planting, well after the colour has gone.

Alliums, of which there are many to choose from, are among the latest flowering of the spring bulbs, technically flowering well into the summer months of May and June. 

With correct choice, you can plant bulbs from now right up to the end of December to ensure continuity of flower colour all the way from December to June.

That’s flower colour in your garden for six months of the year, not bad for one group of plants.

December colour can come from winter aconites, some of the early Crocus, Iris, Anemones and even early varieties of daffodil.

   

The display can be continued with different varieties of the same plants and also by adding Tulips, Muscari, Ranunculus, Sparaxis and Fritillaria

  

There’s never a “right” and “wrong” when it comes to colour choice in the garden. 

Tastes vary and gardens should be individual, as unique as those who plant and create them.

In my case too, tastes change. 

One year I may plant everything of the one hue whereas, the following year I may opt for a riot of different colours to loudly announce that the carnival which is spring in the garden is once more upon us. 

One thing that is for certain, however, is that I will be planting Allium ‘Gladiator’ once more this year, along with other alliums: ‘Christophii’, ‘Ambassador’ and ‘Ivory Queen’.

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