ISSUE 93  |  Bulbs Exposed

Alliums: Just As Good As Tulips But Better

October 10, 2013 7:00 PM

BY Kendra Wilson

Though tulips are highly prized in mid-spring they do have their drawbacks; a team of gardeners planting thousands every autumn being the ideal. Also, they die disgracefully. Alliums on the other hand are the most versatile of bulbs, taking on multiple personalities, doing elegant with the best of them. They last forever, multiplying among themselves, and are a fraction of the price of the needy tulip.

Photographs by Kendra Wilson.

Above: Allium is a sociable bulb, making friends wherever it goes. It thrives in the company of silver or gold, feathery or spiky, in a gravel garden or formal border. The bulbs are not fussy and the seedheads are so attractive that they stay in place, multiplying the population at the same time. Tulips? What are they?

Allium christophii is the horticulturalist’s favorite, its starry, metallic flowers complementing all of its neighbors. Here it mingles with silvery stachys byzantina or “lamb’s ears,” in Beth Chatto’s dry garden. The Gravel Garden receives no irrigation and is in Essex, the driest county in the UK. A pack of 25 Allium christophii bulbs is £8.99 at J.Parker’s. In the US, Allium christophii bulbs are $12.95 for 12 at White Flower Farm.

Above: There is one caveat which needs to be dealt with sooner than later. The leaves look lovely in the bare earth of early spring but they shrivel later and allium needs to be have an understory. Marjoram provides a good emerald carpet, shown here with Allium atropurpureumAllium atropurpureum bulbs are £11.95 for 30 at Sarah Raven. In the US, Allium atropurpureum bulbs are $31.25 for 50, from Van Engelen.

Above: For a crowd of alliums, ‘Purple Sensation’ is the one, flowering over a long period from May. Shown here with acid green smyrmium perfoliatum and nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’, against a hedge of yew. Alliums also mix brilliantly with herbs. Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ bulbs are widely available in the UK: Crocus has them at 150 bulbs for £37.42. In the US, Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ bulbs can be found at American Meadows, $15.95 for ten. 

Above: The shorter, later Allium sphaerocepholon, reaching about two feet, begins its bud life as a green drumstick, slowly turning claret red. Shown here in a July border designed by Arne Maynard, with achillea, hardy geranium, salvia and the white verbascum chaixii. Allium sphaerocepholon bulbs are £2.80 for 25 at Bloms Bulbs. For US readers, Old House Gardens calls them Purple-Headed Garlick bulbs, 25 for $15.

Above: Allium has an uncanny way of adjusting color as the season progresses. Months after tulips have acted out their protracted slide into dormancy–or death–the allium is entering its next phase. Shown here: ‘Purple Sensation’ at Easton Walled Garden in Lincolnshire has finished flowering but its bright seed heads add structure to the late summer show of calendula, poppy and lupin.

Above: So tulips are the elegant, glamor flower of late spring. Well, Allium siculum–also known as Allium bulgaricum–has wonderfully wafting green/cream/plum blooms which go with everything–even berberis, shown here. Overlapping with tulips in May, the pendulous flowers are doing interesting things in July, like reaching straight upwards, as they turn into seedheads. As with most alliums, these dried seed heads add something a bit different to flower decorations. Allium bulgaricum bulbs available at J.Parker’s: £13.98 per 75. Also known as Allium bulgaricum bulbs are available in the US from Van Engelen, 100 for $24.50.

Above: And now for something completely different. Allium ‘Hair’ displayed by Dutch bulb merchants W.S Warmenhoven the Hampton Court Flower Show this year. Allium ‘Hair’ bulbs from White Flower Farm are $9.95 for 12.

Above: Tulips couldn’t do this! Another Arne Maynard vignette (at Cottesbrooke Hall) involves the dark leaves of a cercis with Viburnum opulus trained against a wall. Rising from a bed of persicaria and fern is the star of the show, white allium ‘Mount Everest’. Allium ‘Mount Everest’ is available at Blom’s Bulbs, £7.85 for three bulbs; and at American Meadows in the US Allium ‘Mount Everest’ bulbs are $10.46 for a pack of two.

Different heights of white allium, down to the 8″ Allium cowanii, mix well together and they are also obliging with the varying shades of regular allium, from silvery pink Allium schubertii to darkest, inkiest Allium atropurpureum.

The world’s most versatile bulbs deserve the best bulb planters. See 10 Easy Pieces: Bulb Planters.