If I say the words onion, garlic, and shallot, your mind might not automatically spring to images of beautiful perennial flower borders or even stunning floral arrangements. You are more likely to be picturing vegetable gardens or your kitchen counter. Allium is the Latin word for garlic, and these stalwarts of most people’s culinary repertoire are all part of the allium family, which includes literally hundreds of the most beautiful ornamental varieties. Every flower gardener and fan of bringing the outside in should definitely consider growing them.
Originating in Central Asia in the 16th century, alliums were discovered by the Russians in the 1880s, then became a focus of the great British plant hunters, who caused their popularity to explode. It is one of the largest plant groups in the world with between 600 and 920 species.
Alliums are said to symbolize unity, good fortune, prosperity, humility, and patience. And, as we can never have enough of those these days, the best news of all is they love our horticultural zone here in the Northwest Corner!
One of, if not the, most stunning architectural plants you can grow, alliums come in a large range of colors, heights, flower forms, and bloom timing so there are opportunities to use them in a myriad of ways in the garden. My earliest flower in mid-May, and I have varieties still going strong through the fall. Because of the wide variation in form – think small tight ball to size-of-your-head firework explosion – it can seem like having an alphabet of different plants growing rather than just more of the same.
Each allium head is actually comprised of multiple florets. They vary in color and, while purples and mauves are probably the colors that spring first to mind, they also come in white, red, yellow, pink, and green. They add phenomenal architectural structure to any perennial bed and can be grown as a cut flower crop too.
Alliums are incredibly easy to grow. These are some of the most resilient flowers you’ll ever have gracing your garden. They are not bothered by deer, rabbits, chipmunks, or voles. No diseases or insect pests bother them. Instead, bees, butterflies, and pollinators absolutely love them. I don’t wish to cast shame here but just compare that maintenance level to that, say, of a rose.
Almost all allium varieties like to be in a sunny spot, although some can take more shade, and planted in free draining soil. It’s worth considering planting some of the very tall varieties, like Globemaster, Ambassador, or Gladiator, in a slightly sheltered spot to help them withstand any strong winds. Alliums are extremely drought-tolerant so no need to worry about them in our hot summers. The larger varieties look best planted in odd-numbered groups. In the case of the smaller varieties, these look best planted en masse so they form drifts in either mixed perennial beds or natural meadow-like settings. Plus, like our friend the daffodil last month, they multiply naturally so you can plant them, sit back, and enjoy them for years.
Now is the time to be planning where to place them and to get your wish list in order. Remember that bulb catalogues come out any day now, and it is best to order now to avoid disappointment later. Any bulbs ordered now will not be shipped until they are ready for planting in the fall. Some nice companies don’t even charge you until then.
A league of their own
If you’ve been reading this column for a while, you will know how obsessed I am with seasonal flowers and bringing the outside in. If garden architecture and color were not enough to persuade you to grow these, then this, my cut-flower friends, is where alliums are in a league of their own.
People worry that they smell of onions, but it is the leaves more than the flower heads that give off an odor. Allium flowers can be cut while in full bloom and are fantastic to use as a focal or a filler flower depending on the variety. However, once their blooms go over and their seed heads form, they become the bee’s knees in flower arranging. Even better, you don’t need to cut them straight away but can enjoy them in place in the garden all summer and then bring them in to dry.
Cut and dry
Once cut and dried, the seed heads will last for years – literally! The secret is when cutting them, dry them separately so the seed heads from one stem do not tangle with another. Otherwise, you can easily end up with a cat’s cradle knot and a lot of snapped stamens as you try to detangle them. And I say ‘cut,’ but to be honest, you don’t even need to do this. When they are ready to dry, give a gentle tug and the flower stem will easily release from the bulb.
My favorite varieties are the workhorse Purple Sensation, the onomatopoetically named Schubertii, and Sphaerocephalon or, as it’s more commonly known, the Drumstick allium which looks exactly as its name suggests. They all are completely different but just as easy to grow and give spectacularly long-lived cut and dried flower heads. Please do try one (or more) at home!
Pom Shillingford is an obsessive gardener originally from England and now based in Salisbury, CT. She offers seasonal cut flowers through English Garden Grown. Find her on Instagram @english_garden_grown.