Onions add spice to meals and can perk up the garden too. The lesser-known members of the onion family, the “ornamental onions" have sparkle and glamour. For a spectacular spring-summer show, plant choice Allium bulbs in flowerbeds and pots in September.
Pyramid Grocery Bill
Passing past the Cheops pyramid 450 BC, Herodotus (the Greek whose insatiable appetite for reporting has nourished us richly with details of the antique world) observed the sum of 1,600 silver talents chiselled in a stone. This astonishing amount (half a million Euro) was the “grocery bill” for onions and garlic that fed the workers that built the imposing edifice. Onions, garlic and their cousins chives have not only pepped up dull food since the first hot meal, they’ve cured a multitude of ills from toothache, bronchitis to constipation. In WW1 they were used as antiseptic. And effectively too, according to folklore, have kept evils spirits and vampires safely from our souls.
World’s most adaptable genus
These sun-loving bulbous plants together with damp-loving leeks, form one of the world’s most adaptable genus: Allium, with over 700 species. For the modern gardener, alliums claim another role. They add the “star spangle factor” to flower beds and pots with no fuss and few foibles. Rodents dislike their typical “onion” smell and deer won’t go near them. Others act as body-guards like the yellow A. moly keeping greenfly off roses. Officially described as perennial bulbs (botanically alliums are lumped into the lily family) alliums will faithfully pop up each year for a repeat of their same stunning performance.
Northern Hemisphere Natives
Nearly all alliums (allium is the Latin word for garlic) are natives of the Northern Hemisphere. First prototypes can be pinpointed to Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. The alliums that perk up flower borders most dramatically A. aflateneuse or A. giganteum have their roots in the Middle East. Their fat bulbs are life sustaining “rucksacks” with nutrients for the next generation, an evolutionary response to their summer drought environment. A tip for budding allium lovers: large-bulb alliums do best in dry and well-drained sites.
Planting in grand sweeps
Damp-loving alliums, on the other hand, have more slender bulbs. They need no drought-resistant provisions. Some like A. schoenoprasum, the common chive, have roots on a short rhizome with no bulb at all. Lavishly edging borders or used en masse or in a repeating pattern in flower beds even the spiky leaves of humble chives are a stunning sight. In June there crowned with fluffy ball-like lavender blooms.
Drumsticks & Blue leaves
Under-used very easy to grow are the drumstick flowers of A. sphereocephalon. These bulbs telescope their way through companion plants and stud flowerbeds through to July with exclusive maroon-red flower heads. Their scruffy indescribable leaves (a condition of many members of the allium family) are hidden wonderfully under the skirts of their neighbour’s foliage. The pretty grey-blue leaves of A. karataviense are however an exception. A “must-have” for the front of rock gardens and pots, this dwarf allium flowers in May before disappearing into dormancy leaving space for summer plants to follow.
The heavyweight hybrids
The growing club of allium afficiadnandos not only delight in the impact of A. giganteum and its heavyweight hybrids, but also in the architectural sweeps of the tumbleweed Allium schubertii. They are revered by florists as cut flowers as are the spectacular starlet globes of the best known of the ornamental onions: Allium christophii. But easiest to use to marvellous effect must be A. aflatunense. Found by plant hunters over a hundred years ago and introduced bythe venerable bulb trading firm van Tubergen this is the born colour harmoniser. Dotted through flower beds it blends oranges with yellows and pinks. The dutch company has two newer hybrid surprises: ‘Ambassador’ (2005) huge spheres on a metre tall strong stems and the pink and white flower-beauty ‘Silverspring’. What garden can afford to be without such floral condiments?