• Maureen Little

Spot the Alliums!

I’d been looking forward to Chelsea Flower Show again, but unfortunately, Covid-19 put paid to that this year. I always play a little game called ‘Spot the Alliums’. I can pretty well guarantee that an allium will appear one in form or another in just about every show garden.

But why? What’s so special about them? I don’t have the definitive answer, but I think there are a couple of things that make them popular.

First is the colour. You can find the majority of alliums in the purple part of the colour wheel (there are other colours, of course, but the most popular varieties appear to be the purple ones). Purple is regal and luxurious; it stands out, yet is easy on the eye; it goes with just about every other colour – imagine purple and apricot, purple and lime green, purple and burgundy: they all work well.

Second is the form. The majority are a pleasing spherical shape. They’re curved and non-angular – an attractive shape to look at.

Third is the size. For the amount of vertical impact their drumstick heads make, they take up very little ground space. You can slot them in just about anywhere, knowing that they won’t elbow anything else out of the way.

Fourth is their flowering time. A number of them provide interest in that in-between time twixt spring and summer, whilst others flower just that little bit later, providing on-going interest in the border before the main thrust of blooms take over during the halcyon days of summer.

Fifth is the way they can be used in a planting design. If you’re looking for a something that will give you movement, repetition or a punctuation mark in a design, then look no further. Even small groups will make a visual statement: large swathes will give you the ‘wow’ factor and then some. Use them in a modest area of planting, to a huge prairie-type scheme – they won’t look out of place in any scenario.

So you can see why they’re so popular at Chelsea!

They’re also very popular with bees – another reason the plant them.

Let’s have a look at some of these wonder-flowers, now. Probably the most well-known, and most widely planted, is Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’. It grows to about 90cm in height, so is one of the taller varieties. It likes sun and well-drained soil, so when you plant it in the autumn, choose your spot carefully.

Allium cristophii is paler in colour, and slightly smaller in stature, than A. ‘Purple Sensation’ but what it lacks in height it makes up for with the size of the flower head – up to 20cm!

For a sheer firework display-like show you can’t beat A. schubertii – its pale pink flowerheads simply explode atop 60cm stems.

Paler still is A. ampeloprasum, but it outdoes even A. ‘Purple Sensation’ in height – up to 1m.

One of the smallest flowerheads belongs to A. sphaerocephalon. It’s also one of the latest flowering so is a real treat when the others have long given up the ghost. The colour is intriguing: starting green in bud, the full-blown flowers are a deep burgundy, almost blackberry colour – lovely.

I’ve been focussing on ornamental Allium, but let’s not forget that the Allium family also includes edible varieties. Leeks, garlic, and all kinds of onions fall under the Allium umbrella: here’s just two of them that look good enough to eat.

First is Allium ursinum, known as wild garlic or ramsons. (By the by, the name Ramsbottom has nothing to do with rear-ends of male sheep – it means the valley bottom where ramsons grow!) A. ursinum grow in deciduous woodland areas where they produce both leaf and flower before the tree canopy shades the ground below. They will need similar conditions if you want to grow them in the garden - but be warned, they’ll run amok if they get the chance. You can eat both leaf and flower – they have, as the common name suggests, a flavour of garlic.

The second is Allium schoenoprasum, or chives. These are invaluable in the herb garden, providing leaves as well as flowers for all kinds of culinary delights. I love taking the flowerheads apart and using the individual flowers in a salad – they give a little pop of oniony flavour and a dash of colour to boot. They need moisture-retentive but free-draining soil in a sunny position, although they will cope with a bit of shade.

I’ve got to wait till next year now to play ‘Spot the Alliums’ in any show gardens, but I can still enjoy them this year in my own, not-such-a-show garden.

Speaking of which, I’m not sure this Allium would make it into any show garden. It developed like this, with two extra 'satellite' inflorescences sprouting from the main globe – pointed out by the red arrows. I’ve tried to find out what may have caused it and the nearest explanations I can find is that the bulb may be carrying a virus, or that the warm spring resulted in a mutation in the growth of the inflorescence. If anyone can shed any more light on it, please get in touch.