A love/hate relationship

Allium 'Lucy Ball'

Allium ‘Lucy Ball’

I love alliums – or some of them. More of that later. So I planted ‘Lucy Ball’ probably six years ago following this description which I found on the internet.

‘This attractive hybrid allium decorates the late spring to early summer garden with dense spheres of rich rosy-purple flowers. The rounded flowerheads are composed of many small, starry, individual florets, and are approximately 6 inches (15 centimeters) in diameter. They are borne on tall, strong stems which rise above strappy, green basal leaves that emerge in spring and fade as the plants bloom.’

My Lucy flourished in early spring. Lovely lush green leaves that duly fell over and faded as per the description. But not a flower to be seen. This continued for several years. Yes I should have been  pro-active and either moved it or got rid of it – not always an easy job with alliums. Last autumn, finally, I had a clean-up and trimmed (severely) the shrubs nearby. Result? Flowers on ‘Lucy Ball’. She just needed more sun.

I. setosa with Allium 'Lucy Ball'

I. setosa with Allium ‘Lucy Ball’

But the flowers aren’t rosy-purple. Nor are they dense spheres. They are mauve and flat-bottomed and they are nothing like 15 centimetres in diameter. But I’m not complaining. They are tall, they rise among lesser plants, they last a long time in water or in the garden, and best of all, they have inexplicably jumped across the grass and embedded themselves in another location along with Allium sphaerocephalon which flowers much later.

Ornamental allium species are mainly gorgeous.  Many are tall; most are sculptural and beautifully coloured, with rounded heads that make a strong statement. They combine well with other perennials such as iris, delphiniums, lavender, salvias, peonies, hardy geraniums and ornamental grasses.

They make excellent cut flowers and in the garden most of the varieties mentioned below are back-of-the border plants. Their foliage is only attractive before the flowers bloom so it makes sense to plant ‘fluffier’ perennials nearby and let the alliums bloom above their heads.

As a rule they are hardy plants, surviving frosty winters so long as they don’t have wet feet, happy enough in poor soil, preferring dry summer conditions and full sun. In their native habitat they often grow on dry rocky hillsides. Once their flowers are over the foliage, as with most bulbs, should be allowed to dry off naturally to ensure a good flower crop the following season.

Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’, growing more than a metre tall, is probably the best known of the allium bunch, coveted for its perfect spheres of dark purple blooms, rising above the short, strappy foliage. 

A. giganteum, also with purple heads, can grow almost two metres tall. Like ‘Purple Sensation’, it starts to bloom in November.

If you are looking  for ultimate vase life, then choose ‘Globemaster’ which has  lilac-purple heads on 70cm stems.

Allium sphaerocephalon offers a long season of interest with green flower heads, later turning to red/purple in summer.

Allium sphaerocephalon offers a long season of interest with green flower heads, later turning to red/purple in summer.

One of my favourites is A. sphaerocephalon. Less spectacular than some of the larger varieties, it provides interest for an extended season. The long, thin, grassy leaves start to appear in July but the smallish, oval flower heads only become noticeable several months later. They start out chartreuse-green in early summer and slowly turn a reddish-purple from the top down as they mature. This plant takes up less space than some of its bigger cousins and is a quick multiplier though some might say invasive.

Allium akaka seen on a dry hillside in Eastern Turkey.

Allium akaka seen on a dry hillside in Eastern Turkey.

If you’re not looking for tall beauties, try A. karataviense, also known as the Turkestan onion. It grows only about 20cm tall and has two, wide, tongue-shaped leaves, not unlike hosta foliage. The flower may be white, purple or pink. Found in loose, limestone scree slopes on mountains in Central Asia, it makes a good rock garden plant. It is also the most suitable of the garden-friendly species to grow in a container and in my climate seeds well.

Very similar is A. akaka, which I once saw blooming in early June on a steep, rocky slope, high in the hills of Eastern Turkey.

Of course we all use alliums in the kitchen. Garlic (Allium sativum ) is one of the family and of course the common brown or red onion (A. cepa) is the most commonly cultivated species. Grow several of these tiny plants closely together, harvest them before the bulbs are formed and you have spring onions.

A. fistulosum  is commonly called the Welsh onion or Japanese bunching onion and the leaves, which are fat and hollow, are used like spring onions.

Allium x proliferum Otherwise known as Egyptian onions: useful in the kitchen; grows all year round.

Allium x proliferum
Otherwise known as Egyptian onions: useful in the kitchen; grows all year round.

I grow A. x proliferum,  a cross between A. cepa and A. fistulosum  known as an Egyptian or tree onion and I hate to be without it. I use it, year round, in any recipe that calls for spring onions as I prefer its milder flavour. It has a very efficient system of propagation. Instead of producing flowers, they grow a small group of bulbils at the tip of the stem. When this becomes too heavy it flops over and the bulbils take root in the earth and voilà, pickable new plants are ready the following season.  In winter they withstand frosty weather better than sodden gardens.  But beware – they can become invasive.


Always let a few leeks go to seed if you want attractive flowers in the house for autumn.

Always let a few leeks go to seed if you want attractive flowers in the house for autumn.

Another common allium in the kitchen is A. ampeloprasum var. porrum otherwise known as a leek. I hate to admit that my first crop of leeks – many years ago – failed totally to grow leaves, though they did produce beautiful white flowers on long stiff stems. Since then I have always let a few of my crop go to flower so I have the long-lasting blooms to use inside.

Chives, or A. schoenoprasum, is the smallest culinary allium. In fact though, the clumps are so attractive with their small, tight drumsticks of mauve flowers, that they sit just as easily in the flower garden as they do in the potager.

Two other alliums I hate. They’re neither pretty nor useful.

Most people in the North Island will be familiar with the strong-smelling onion flower, A. triquetrum. It’s edible. It’s attractive. And it’s a menace! A low-growing plant with narrow leaves and loose umbels of dainty, attractive, bell-like white flowers, each with a green stripe down the middle of the petals, it’s an import that has gone mad in New Zealand. Given half the chance it invades roadsides, gardens or the edges of parks and quickly takes over. Getting rid of it requires drastic measures. The leaves can be chopped and used like chives; the bulbs can be pickled or sliced and eaten fresh; the flowers can be used as a garnish on salads. But no-one in their right mind would cultivate this plant.

Almost as bad, but less prevalent is A. vineale, or wild garlic. Another edible monster, it’s easy to mistake the leaves for grass and the variety which has invaded one of my alpine troughs does not flower – it just puts all its energy into producing dozens of tiny oval bulbs that cling to the parent and bury themselves so deeply under my precious fritillarias and erythroniums, that it is proving impossible to dig them all out.

I guess you can’t win them all!

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