The Interesting Allium Family

ornamental alliums

Picture by Andy Mabbett; Selection of cultivated Alliums at the BBC Gardeners’ World show, National Exhibition Centre, near Birmingham, England.

A lot of people might not recognize the name; Allium. This is a family of well over 750 species and people are more apt to recognize just a few members of the family. For instance, most people probably know what onions, garlic, chives, leek and shallots are. These are all alliums and this is the onion family.

What fewer people know is that many alliums can be grown as decorative ornamental plants. Some of them are quite gorgeous and many are unusual. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has grown garlic chives, which have lovely deep purple early spring blossoms. Many people grow chives in their flowerbeds because of the pretty flowers, in fact.

ornamental allium

Schubert allium with a bacground of yarrow

However, many alliums are even more showy. A great example is Schubert allium (Allium schubertii). This plant normally grows less than two feet tall, but it has huge flowers that have a form that rather reminds a person of a fourth of July display of fireworks. Sometimes called the tumbleweed onion, this plant grows from a bulb and it is quite drought resistant. In fact, it prefers dry soil and doesn’t do well in damp areas. The bulbs can be separated yearly and it also seeds itself if the flowers aren’t dead-headed. The flower is usually pinkish purple, though cultivars have been developed that have different colored flowers. This one flowers in the late spring.

Another showy allium is Allium aflatunense, usually called Purple Sensation. This species is from Asia and it has globular flower heads that are pink to purple and look much like the flowers of chives, except they are much larger. This species grows up to three feet tall and it flowers in the late spring. It is deer resistant and cold hardy. It tolerates drought well and does have an onion-like aroma.

Allium flavum is a species that has cheerful yellow blossoms. For this reason, it is sometimes called yellow flowered garlic. The flowers are bell-shaped and small. This plant, which originally came from the Mediterranean area, doesn’t grow very tall and is normally between a half-foot to a foot tall. It appeals to butterflies, but is resistant to deer. It is also drought tolerant.

Allium caeruleum is alternately called the flowering onion and the azure flowered garlic. The plant grows up to two feet in height and in the spring, it produces globe-shaped, startlingly true-blue blossoms that can be in inch in diameter. It is resistant to both deer and rabbits and can handle drought well.

Lady’s Leek, also called nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum) is a North American native. It blooms in the summertime and the flower cluster droops, then opens beautiful pink, lilac blue or white flowers. The leaves are flattened rather than being hollow. This allium loves damp soil but resists drought and deer tend not to like it. Butterflies do, however. This plant will also grow in poor, rocky or clay soil. It grows up to two feet tall.

Drumstick allium (Allium sphaerocephalon) is a lovely border plant. It grows up to three feet tall and in the early summer it produces egg-shaped clusters of reddish-purple flowers. The flowers are often almost maroon in color. As with the other alliums mentioned, this one is tolerant of drought and resistant of both deer and rabbits. It can also handle sandy soil.

When these are grown in flowerbeds, people often admire the beauty without ever being aware that they are members of the onion family. It is best and easiest to simply call them ornamental onions. Their allure is obvious and these plants don’t need the best soil or growing conditions, which makes them interesting additions around the yard. They aren’t apt to be bothered by deer or rabbits, either, and are both easy to grow and simple to maintain.

Naturally, this is only a few of the beautiful kinds of ornamental onions that can be grown.



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