As autumn progresses, garden centers really want to move those familiar spring bulbs like tulips and daffodils. (They won't keep till next year.) But there are a few compelling reasons gardeners, even absolute beginners, should stretch a bit beyond the old favorites and try a less common bulb—the allium.
First, the flowers have a special charm: On top of a leafless stem there's a ball of florets that can look, depending on the kind of allium, like a softball, a spray of fireworks, or even a chandelier.
Along with their unusual charm, alliums are unlikely to get eaten by marauding creatures. Allium is the Latin word for garlic, and these flowering plants are part of the family that includes chives and onions, as well as the "stinking rose." The magical combination of various sulfides that enlivens tomato sauce and protects against colds, not to mention vampires, also repels rodents and deer.
Last year, I learned a bitter lesson when my garden provided about $125 worth of crocus bulbs to mice and squirrels for their winter eating pleasure. What I begrudge more than the cost were the many woman-hours of hands-and-knees labor. This year, I'm planting allium moly (see below), whose bulb contains enough essence of garlic to ward off the rodents.
Daffodils, like alliums, are distasteful to rodents and deer; the bulbs evolved to contain alkaloids, the family of compounds that includes nicotine and morphine. Tulips and crocuses, on the other hand, are to squirrels what roasted chestnuts and pumpkin pie are to human beings—cold weather delicacies.
Finally, and of course this is the most prized quality in any plant, alliums are hard to kill. Not impossible, but hard. They're tough creatures, mostly from Central Asia, where they evolved to get along in gritty soil and hot, dry summers. The one condition most alliums don't tolerate is poor drainage; they don't like sitting in mud. Not only are they unlikely to die, they're very good at multiplying. They do go dormant and fade away after flowering, but they return, often in greater numbers, the next spring.
The most commonly sold allium bulbs are the giants like "Gladiator" and "Globemaster." These are the plants you want if your gardening goal is to have visitors say, "What in the name of God is that?"
Everyone tells children to plant sunflower seeds for a thrilling payoff. But Globemaster and its ilk are even greater child-pleasers, because they strongly suggest an alien life form. A circle of big straplike leaves pops out of the ground when you're not looking and sends up a towering stem with, basically, a softball on the end of it—a softball composed of many purple florets.
These hulking alliums, though certainly striking and definitely fun, have been Martha Stewart-ed to death. When I was an apprentice gardener, my mentor, Patrick, wondered how a wealthy client suddenly developed the idea of, and a desperate need for, 100 Globemaster alliums alongside a path (or a similar sudden desire for an Elizabethan herb garden or 24 espaliered pear trees). A subscription to Martha Stewart Living would have provided him with an early warning system.
Here are five recommendations for easy and satisfying allium bulbs, leading off with a much less expensive and subtler alternative to the giants (which can cost as much as $14.95 for one bulb). All these will work in Climate Zones 4 through 8 and will flower in late spring. Don't fear the long Latin names. Spell them correctly in your search, and you'll pull up photos and places to buy them. (Most suppliers stop shipping spring-flowering bulbs Nov. 20.)
- Allium christophii. Less obvious and a bit shorter than Gladiator, christophii has a round flower head composed of 50 or so star-shaped flowers, lavender with a silvery sheen. The leaves die back as the flowers fade; the remaining brown stems and seed heads can be snipped, but that brown look is becoming very chic in advanced gardening circles.
- Allium karataviense. This is a low-growing plant, good for a rock garden or beside steps. It has remarkable foliage, broad arching paddles outlined and veined with purple. The flower is commonly like a dusty pink tennis ball, but a new, prettier variety called "Ivory Queen" is a nice clean white.
- Allium moly. Probably the easiest of the small alliums, this one has a small fireworkslike spray of bright yellow flowers. It has the added quality of blooming in shade.
- Allium sphaerocephalon. Also known as "Drumstick" allium, this plant's long name just means it has a round head. The flower is a tight little maroon-purple knob that never quite opens. The leaves may be fading as the flowers are still blooming, so a good tactic is to plant low-growing perennial geraniums or alchemilla mollis in front of them.
- Allium zebdanense. This is one of the exceedingly useful plants that gets along well in very dry shade. White flowers appear out of a grasslike clump; they bloom and then the plant disappears till next April.
I can't leave the subject without mentioning allium bulgaricum. The extremely knowledgeable reader will know this isn't really an allium and was misnamed for a long time. It's really nectaroscordum siculum, with the evocative common name of Sicilian honey garlic. This one has a spectacular chandelier effect. There's a cluster of 30 or so dangling florets, each greenish-white with a purple throat. (Hardy only to Zone 6.)
Then there's the grandly named allium schoenoprasum. Also known as chives, this versatile plant not only works as decoration in the front of the flower border, but also in scrambled eggs and potato salad.