Monday 20 August 2012

Alliums - bulbs that last

Alliums are such appealing flowers, delicate structures carried on straight stems above the other residents of the flower border.  These are enduring flowers, long term garden plants that reliably produce blooms that are exquisite in bud, flower and seed.  There are a number of popular varieties appearing in garden centres now as dry bulbs.  This is the way to buy them, its far better value than buying them growing in pots later on.
I garden on well-drained sandy soil, and my alliums multiply year on year.  They also seed and spread successfully and I encourage this as they drift through the borders.  It takes a few years for alliums from seed to flower, but the parent bulbs keep up the display in the meantime.
The essential allium in any garden is the lovely silver-lilac Allium christophii.  This has large sparkling flowerheads on stout stems, and it’s one of the longest lasting alliums I know.  Plant the bulbs a few centimetres apart in groups of three or so, or plant singly and randomly amidst herbaceous geraniums or silver foliage plants.  Never plant alliums where you can see the base of the plant, for example in pots or bare soil.  The foliage starts to die back as the flowers open and it looks awful. 
Allium christophii has a stunning seedhead when the flowers fade, and it last in good condition into autumn, before turning to parchment in the winter garden.  Often last year’s seedheads are blowing around the garden when the plants are producing more flowers the following summer.
The other large flowered alliums I rate highly are Allium ‘Globemaster and Allium ‘Gladiator’.

These are taller with large tightly packed flowerheads which are magnets for bees and pollinating insects.  These bulbs are more expensive, but again you are investing in long-term garden plants.  The blooms are long lasting, but the seedheads are not.  Enjoy them while they are the spectacles of the early summer border, rising high above perennials and grasses.
In most gardens alliums are left along by rabbits and deer, so they are a better bet than tulips which these creatures love! There are lots of other varieties to choose from, and lots of planting partners. One of my favourites is the lovely grass Stipa tenuissima. 
Alliums and Stipa tenuissima – now there’s a marriage made in heaven – maybe I’ll write about that next time.  This certainly isn’t my last word on alliums.  I want you all to know your onions by the time September is out!


  1. Loving Alliums! Allium sphaerocephalon is one of my favourites actually. I think they look like sweeties when they emerge all green and pink bobbles. I generally grow them in a wall of fennel. I don't really hear other people raving about them (or writing about them) much though. Any thoughts why? Is it the stalks are a bit messy?

  2. Hi Elspeth I love Allium sphaerocephalon too. Brilliant cut flower and delicious with Stipa tenuissima. Might put this pic in my next blog now you mention it. I think people get excited by the bigger alliums and forget these little gems and how much impact they make. Allium spaero. is glorious at Beth Chatto. I have allium cernuum flowering with Stipa at the moment. Do you know that one?