Awe­some al­li­ums! 2016 is the year of the al­lium

Ontario Gardener Magazine - - LOCAL DIRT - By Kath­leen Lal­ib­erte

Or­na­men­tal al­li­ums have so many good things go­ing for them that it’s a won­der they’re not more widely planted. But al­li­ums are def­i­nitely on the rise. They seem to be pop­ping up ev­ery­where: in gar­den­ing books and mag­a­zines, on Pin­ter­est boards, and in pub­lic and pri­vate gar­dens across the coun­try.

Most al­lium flow­ers have a long, leaf­less stalk topped with a globe-like bloom that’s made up of a clus­ter of in­di­vid­ual flo­rets. Like ex­cla­ma­tion points, al­li­ums stand out from other plants, adding em­pha­sis and ex­cite­ment wher­ever they’re grown.

In re­cent years, al­li­ums have been used to great ef­fect in the nat­u­ral­is­tic plant­ings of gar­den de­sign­ers such as Piet Ou­dolf and James van Swe­den. They are ideal com­pan­ions for or­na­men­tal grasses and other low main­te­nance peren­ni­als such as se­dum, rud­beckia, ech­in­cacea and salvia.

Deer are an­other rea­son al­li­ums are in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar. Some gar­den­ers fight a daily bat­tle with rov­ing bands of deer that will munch on any­thing green. Al­li­ums are on the short list of plants deer tend to avoid. In the gar­den, the plants are odor­less, but step on them or chew on them and the cell walls break, re­leas­ing volatile, sul­fur-based chem­i­cal com­pounds that have a pun­gent odor and bit­ter taste.

These sul­furous com­pounds, clas­si­fied as sec­ondary me­tab­o­lites, are a de­fense mech­a­nism against dis­eases and in­sects as well as preda­tors. This makes al­li­ums vir­tu­ally bul­let­proof. And, though the fo­liage re­pels, the flow­ers are filled with sweet nec­tar that’s highly at­trac­tive to hon­ey­bees, bum­ble­bees and other pol­li­na­tors.

Ed­i­ble al­li­ums are among the world’s old­est cul­ti­vated plants, but there is no record of them be­ing used as ornamentals un­til plant hunters be­gan col­lect­ing al­li­ums in the mid-1800s. An­other 150 years passed be­fore the hor­ti­cul­tural world started to fully ap­pre­ci­ate their gar­den po­ten­tial.

Al­li­ums are mem­bers of the onion fam­ily, which is a big one and has more than the usual num­ber of tax­on­omy prob­lems. Formerly clas­si­fied as al­li­aceae, they are now amaryl­l­i­daceae, sub­fam­ily al­lioideae. Ex­perts are un­able to agree on the num­ber of species, with es­ti­mates rang­ing be­tween 500 and 750.

Like their culi­nary rel­a­tives, gar­lic and shal­lots, most or­na­men­tal onions grow from bulbs. Planted in fall, they bloom from late spring to early sum­mer. The flow­ers have hol­low stems that rise above strappy basal leaves. As with other spring­bloom­ing bulbs, the fo­liage be­gins to wither away shortly af­ter or some­times even while the flow­ers are bloom­ing. Though the fo­liage isn’t around for long, it’s enough to give the bulbs the en­ergy they need to re­turn and flower year af­ter year.

Ba­sic Types/Va­ri­eties

The most pop­u­lar or­na­men­tal al­li­ums are grown from fallplanted bulbs, and the showiest of these are the big-headed ones such as ‘Glad­i­a­tor’ and ‘Globe­mas­ter’. Al­li­ums are na­tive to moun­tain­ous re­gions in Cen­tral Asia, where win­ters are cold, sum­mers are hot, and the soils are thin and por­ous. This gives them a tol­er­ance, and even a pref­er­ence, for dry grow­ing con­di­tions – ideal cre­den­tials for to­day’s wa­ter con­scious land­scap­ing.

Al­lium Ni­grum And Pur­pureum.

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