The Gardener's Apprentice

Onions for all Seasons

After seeing five deer grazing contentedly on my front lawn, I started doing some serious thinking about onions.  I had some nice big ones in the crisper drawer and the temptation to distract the deer by hurling those hefty vegetables was strong.  Fortunately the deer heard a noise and cleared off on their own.  My thoughts turned to growing onions rather than flinging them.

The onion family, Alliaceae, is large and home to about 700 species, including well-known culinary favorites like ordinary onions, garlic, leeks and chives.  Most are characterized by the recognizable onion or garlic odor.  Deer don’t like that smell, which is a blessing for anyone who has ever cursed Mr. Antlers and his clan for dining on the landscaping.  Rodents and rabbits are similarly disinclined to nibble on ornamental onions.

But onion family members are not confined to the vegetable and herb garden.  There are so many ornamental varieties that it is possible to grow decorative and deer-repellent flowering onions in your garden from mid to late spring until the end of the growing season.

In mid-spring the onion parade starts with Allium moly, also known as golden garlic or golden allium.  One of the most popular varieties is yellow-flowered ‘Jeanne’, which grows about 14 inches tall and produces umbels or flat-toped flowerheads of five-petaled blooms.  The foliage is blue-green, springing from the plant’s base and resembling tulip leaves.  As with all ornamental onions, moly is attractive to bees and other pollinators and makes a good cut flower.

Golden onion is lovely, but for real fireworks, there is nothing like the globe alliums that bloom in late May or June.  These tall species and varieties are renowned for their big round heads of tightly-packed white or purple flowers.  Rising two to three feet tall and boasting “globes” up to 10 inches wide, these alliums provide drama even after the flowers have faded.  The seedheads look a bit like giant, dried dandelions, but without that plant’s annoying thuggish habits.  In this group, bright purple ‘Globemaster’ sports the biggest blossoms.  Its sibling, ‘Pinball Wizard’, is a little shorter, at about two feet tall, with slightly lighter blooms.  White-flowered Allium stiputatum ‘White Giant’, towers at three to four feet tall, with snowy globes up to eight inches wide.

For something a little different that also blooms in late spring, there is Allium siculum bulgaricum, sometimes known as Nectaroscordum siculum.  If either Latin name proves hard to remember, try “Sicilian honey lily”.  Whatever you call it, the flowers are wonderful.  Unlike the shapely orbs of the globe varieties, Sicilian honey lilies feature flowerheads of dangling greenish-white bells, striped in purple or maroon.  Like the globe types, these “lilies” grow up to three feet tall.

Lovers of blue flowers can look forward to June when Allium caesium, also known as light blue garlick, blooms.  It is shorter than some of the more statuesque onions, never reaching more than 12 inches tall, with four-inch, globular flowers.  To my eye, it looks like a miniature, more tightly-wound version of its relative, the voguish Agapanthus or Nile lily, which blooms in July.  Both are relatively tender, hardy only to USDA plant hardiness zone 7.  Because of that, agapanthus is often grown in containers and overwintered indoors.  It is a showhorse, with fleshy stalks that can soar to four feet and vivid, blue, blue-purple or white flowerheads.  The flowers last a long time, which is a bonus in the high summer garden.

Drumstick allium or Allium sphaerocephalon is another July bloomer.  Its flowers are relatively small—only two inches wide, but they are bright purple on wiry stems that can reach 24 inches.  Planted in drifts or groups, the drumstick allium is an amazing sight and also attracts butterflies to its round, densely packed flowerheads.

In late summer or early fall, Allium senescens or circle onion, brings rounded purplish-pink flowerheads into the garden.  Individual blooms also feature bright yellow stamens.  The leaves are gray-green and stems grow between one and three feet.  A happy circle onion will form a nice clump that needs little care.  Like many ornamental alliums, circle onion also makes a great dried flower.

At the end of the growing season, in September or October, Allium thunbergii or Japanese onion, comes into its own.  The onion-scented leaves are grass-like in appearance and may turn orange in autumn.  Typically rounded flowerheads are reddish-purple and about two inches wide, with projecting yellow stamens, which add distinction to the flowers.  Japanese onion is shorter than some of the earlier-blooming varieties and tops out at 12 inches.  For the largest flowers in the genus, try ‘Ozawa’, introduced by shade plant specialist, George Schenk.

The above alliums are only a few of the many species and varieties on the market.  Spring and early summer blooming types are generally planted in the fall, along with the daffodils and tulips.  In fact, there is something to be said for interplanting tulips and other predator-vulnerable bulbs with alliums to help deter the varmints.

Retailers specializing in bulbs generally carry a good selection of alliums, but for an especially wide range, try John Scheepers, 23 Tulip Drive, P.O. Box 638 Bantam, CT 06750; (860) 567-0838;  Free Catalog.  Another excellent sources is Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, 7900 Daffodil Lane Gloucester, VA 23061, (877) 661-2852;  Free catalog.