Great balls of flower: alliums

It would be very easy to become an allium fanatic. They are varied and often very beautiful. You tend to get hooked on the ‘big ball’ alliums first but you then discover a world of intriguing bulbs with flowers in a wide range of colours and, if you have well drained soil and a sunny spot, which most require, you could start collecting.

Although planted in autumn, they flower well after the usual spring bulbs (well most do) and their main season is May and June though there are many exceptions. Alliums are onions and vice versa but apart from the edible kinds there are lots of ornamental alliums and most have starry, six-petalled flowers, though some are bells shaped. There is a preponderance of purple shades but white is also common though there are yellows, pinks and real blues.

Although you can start from seed this is only for the patient really because most will take several years to reach flowering size (unlike my red onions!) and the big ball alliums may take five years. Most people start with bulbs and these can cost as little as a few cents per bulb to about 6euro (£5) or more – each. Always be careful when buying mixes of alliums because if they are bargain collections with 100 bulbs for as little as 6euro (£5) they are bound to contain 75 (weedy) Allium moly, 15 (almost weedy, pink) Allium ostrowskianum, 15 (blue and attractive but spindly – and NOT the only blue allium) Allium caeruleum and 5 (lovely) Allium cristophii – not the bargain you had hoped for. It is better to forget about good fairies delivering ‘too good to be true’ packages and to buy what you want.

I planted a fair number of alliums last autumn and I just thought I would highlight the best performers today.

allium globem

The first  is no surprise because I have grown it many times and it is my (second) favourite allium. ‘Globemaster’ does all you want from a big ball allium, and then some. It is a hybrid of Allium macleanii and the wonderful A. cristophii and apparently took 20 years to reach commercial production. Its creator was Jan Bijl who I assume was Dutch. It combines the dense, round heads of the first parent with the metallic sheen of the second and what makes it special is the sheer number of flowers packed into each head that keep on opening so the head gets bigger as it develops. It is certainly the longest lasting of its type in my experience. It has stout stems, about 80cm tall and the heads can reputedly reach 28cm across though I think 20cm is more normal and certainly satisfactory. It is not cheap but it is definitely worth the money and it is not the most expensive. Compared to others such as A. giganteum, ‘Lucy Ball’ (which I admit I bought because of the name) and ‘Gladiator’ you get many more bangs for your buck. In the photo above it is planted with ‘Spider’.

allium sider

‘Spider’ (above) is an interesting allium. One of its parents is A. schubertii which has always been desirable because of its strange flowerheads. Instead of being perfectly round because of the flower stems all being the same length this one has flowers on stalks of different lengths, some as much as 15cm so you get a real firework-like display with a sparse globe of flowers as much as 30cm across. Unfortunately the flowers are not very colourful and the plant has a reputation for being intolerant of too much moisture so it is not the easiest of garden plants. Even so it acquired an almost cult status. But now we have ‘Spider’ which is a hybrid with A. atropurpureum, a tall allium with dark purple flowers. The result is a plant with similar flowering characteristics to A. schubertii but with brighter flowers. Now they are a rather dull and sanguine shade but they are certainly pleasant enough and the heads are pretty darn spectacular. The early flowers open on shorter stems and the later flowers push through these so the heads keep on enlarging. I was worried when I saw these come up because the leaves looked virused to me but the bulbs have all flowered. I am also pleased to report that although I planted some in the well drained herb beds even those in the rather wet, clay borders have done well. The flower stems reach about 60cm high and I am looking forward to seeing the seed heads too.

allium beee

But my favourite allium, and I am sure it is a choice I will never change, is Allium cristophii (previosly A. albopilosum). This one has it all. The stems vary from 30-60cm high and the flowers are comparatively large, about 2cm across, to form large heads up to 20cm across. The flowers are a lovely metallic lilac and the leaves are grey-green. Unfortunately, like most alliums, with the notable exception of A. karataviense, the leaves are in a dreadful state by the time the flowers open and in this species they are more or less dead. But the good news is that it is comparatively inexpensive and you can afford to plant lots, which is good news for you and for the bees. Bees love all alliums, this one included. It is native to central Turkey, Iran and Turkmenistan but is is surprisingly tolerant of average garden conditions and it often self seeds. The dried flower heads are also one of the best, retaining the straw-like petals on the seed heads: wonderful sprayed gold for winter arrangements.

alliums may

These are a slightly random mix bought as ‘Haarlem Superglobe’. They seem to be average A.x hollandicum along with a lot of strange white alliums that are only just opening.

chives and pasley

It is cheating but I had to mention A. schoenoprasum – better known as chives! It may be a herb but it is looking bright as a button at the moment and I can’t ignore it!



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