Erica’s Oddballs: The Alliums

By September 25, 20094 Comments
by Erica Bowman

Here’s the latest from the Erica’s Oddballs series! With each post, Erica will introduce you to interesting and unusual plants and offer tips for how to integrate them into your home landscape. Don’t miss a post–subscribe to The Home Outside!

Allium sphaerocephalon ‘Hair’

Allium sphaerocephalon ‘Hair.’ Photos: Left: Erica Bowman; Center: Flickr: mork the delayer; Right: New York City Garden Blog.

Despite the myriad possibilities growing wild in my field and forest, I often turn to professional nurseries to see what sort of interesting allium cultivars they have come up with. These professional cultivators, of course, are the people who take a wild species and make it better. Sometimes they are looking for disease resistance, flower longevity, or color. Other times I am convinced that they have a morbid curiosity for the truly bizarre. In any case, with so many species to choose from, we can count on a constantly replenishing supply of new cultivar oddities. I like the alliums because they always sit on the edge of strange, even when unintended. Here are four of my favorites:

1. Allium sphaerocephalon ‘Hair’

OK. This plant is not for everyone. I know. A posy of perfection, it is not. This wild child of the onion family is anything but couth. Unkempt strands of crazy green hair ornament each bulbous head to create little spheres of delightful disorder. For the cautiously adventurous, this plant can offer the well-kept garden a little bit of controlled madness. So unusual in its countenance, this plant can also command attention in even some of the wilder garden spaces. Of course, garden styles aside, not everyone is interested in inviting more madness into his or her garden. Again, I remind you, this plant is NOT for everyone, which is what makes it all the more special.

Planting Tips:
If you are willing to try these little monsters, purchase them with your bulb order in the fall and plant them en masse (20-25 bulbs) near other bloomers for the best effect. In my garden, they bloom alongside Trollius ‘Orange Globe’ and Salvia nemorosa. You’ll find the Allium sphaerocephalon ‘Hair’ is one of the first plants to emerge and has an extremely long season of beauty. The alliums are also fantastic punctuations in a summer bouquet, inviting stares and dropped jaws at the dinner party—my favorite look is when the flowers are just about to burst out of paper-thin translucent casings.
Be careful though; the plant’s hair-like strands are actually baby bulbs ready to drop off and grow. It is not uncommon to find ‘Hair’ babies galore in your spring garden. Definitely weed these out because they look a bit scraggily when not in a group. If you harbor an outstanding hatred for invading onion grass, I’d avoid this plant!


Garlic scapes. Photo: Compostings Blog.

2. Allium sativum…Garlic!

Late June/early July is the time of year for the scapes to arrive in my vegetable garden. These false flowers (no seeds) are more like little sculptures than anything else. Every year when I first see them I wonder why I don’t plant them right into my perennial beds. Their wiry green stems bend this way and that, creating elegant loops and spirals in their wake. Like other alliums in its class, the garlic scape creates a single flower per bulb. This one also creates a wonderful garlicky appetizer or side dish when sautéed with butter.
Don’t hesitate to harvest these beauties straight from your vegetable garden—removing the scapes at the completion of at least two loop-de-loops will help the plant send most of its energy downward to the developing bulb (garlic). I find that the flowers are very interesting additions to the bouquet. Like Seuss-esque question marks, they punctuate even the most staid collection of plants with a sense of whimsy. I like to bunch them in groups of three or more and give them ample height above the other flowers so that they have room to show off their twirl.

Planting Tips:
If you want to plant garlic in your own garden, be sure to choose appropriate root stock. It’s true that the bulbs are merely individual garlic cloves, but size and provenance are everything in the garlic world, and some cultivars will simply not work in your garden. As garlic is planted in the fall, hardiness is a factor to consider. If you are from a northern climate like me (Vermont), you will find more success using hardneck varieties. If you are from a southern area, try softneck varieties. It is important not to use supermarket garlic of an unknown origin, especially if you live in the north as most of it is grown in warm climates and a good deal comes from China. You will also want to be selective amongst the cloves of the seed garlic, planting only the larger ones for best garlic production and saving the smaller ones either for the frying pan, or your own perennial garden experiment. If there is one thing I have noticed, it’s that the size of the seed stock does not seem to correlate to the size of the scape. Substantially-sized scapes seem to grow on small bulbs.
Two commercial growers of organic garlic are Seeds of Change and Hood River Garlic. These growers will ship your order as early as September and sometimes sell out—so if you want garlic, order soon.


Allium cernuum (Nodding Onions). Photos: Left: American Beauties Native Plants; Center: Erica Bowman; Right: VNHS Summer Camp.

3. Allium cernuum (Nodding Onions)

Allium cernuum may be the tamer cousin of garlic and ‘Hair,’ but it still has its unique qualities earning it status on the oddball list. There’s usually a marked disorder to these groupings that make them appear more like a disheveled group of sullen teenagers than dignified members of the plant kingdom. Their heads tend to nod this way and that in complete chaotic disregard of the sun’s rays, magnetic north, or even each other. Despite all of this misbehavior, I would describe their overall effect as nothing less than a beautiful bedlam. This sort of raucous celebration seems only fitting for the coming of summer, and in cool weather like we had this year, their riotous pink explosions may even stick around to the fourth of July.

Planting Tips:
The hypnotic pink blends wonderfully with the subtle violet of nearby Geranium ‘Rozanne,’ catmint (Nepeta faassenii ‘Six Hills Giant’), the dark purple of Savia nemerosa, and the coordinating pinks of Dianthus grationopolitanus ‘Bath’s Pink’ and assorted Rosas. Remember, this plant is only 1-1.5’ high so plant near the front of the border. Also remember to cluster the bulbs in groupings of at least ten when you plant them in the fall. This is a plant that should be easy to find in bulb catalogs, as it grows natively across North America.


Allium sphaerocepalum (Drumstick Allium). Photos: Left: Easy to Grow Bulbs; Right: White Flower Farm.

4. Allium sphaerocephalum (Drumstick Allium)

Not only does this little guy blend two of my favorite colors (chartreuse and magenta), but it is a plant whose beauty extends to multiple seasons, through leaf emergence, bud, and bloom. When the “flower head” emerges, it is covered in a thin, translucent covering. As the plant ages, the color deepens to burgundy, and the individual buds widen and begin to take on a looser shape. Some people dry the heads for flower arrangements, extending Allium sphaerocepalum’s life indefinitely.
This plant seems to bloom later than the other Alliums I’ve mentioned. I find that it can accompany moonbeam coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’) with shocking results. The brilliant yellow of the moonbeam mass set off by the magenta/burgundy “drumsticks” is eye-catching. I also like to play it off of purple gayfeather (Liatris spicata ‘Kobold’) and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) to create a harmonizing purple/pink collection.

Planting Tips:
Like the other Alliums, you will only get one “flower” per bulb, so plant them in clusters of 20-25 in the fall. I have seen some gardeners recommend planting beneath a rose bush to hide the nondescript foliage. While this seems odd to me, I can imagine it working well with perennial geraniums or catmint. I actually have one cluster planted near an unusual catmint (Nepeta grandiflora ‘Dawn to Dusk’) in my garden, and it appears to be growing from beneath it. While this was truly accidental and due more to the unintended prolific success of the neighboring catmint than any planned action, the result is nice and the colors blend remarkably well.

That’s all for now–stay tuned for more exciting plants in the Oddballs Series!

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Genevieve says:

    Thank you for sharing fantastical alliums! This blog subject reminds me of floating down the Eider River of Mongolia and finding large wild onions, so similar to ones from my garden, sprouting from sand-filled rock crevices along the banks. We gathered many for our fire- cooked dinner this time last year.

    This year we could not do Mongolia and I have celebrated by planting drifts of Allium “White Giant” amongst my white aspen trunks…they’ll float like white ghosts, reminding me of adventures past. Thank you for all the tips. Makes me wish I would’ve planted thicker clumps!

  • Erica says:

    Wow that image of your floating down the Elder River is so romantic. I like the idea of planting these alliums as a reminder of landscapes you have visited in the past. I especially like the idea of playing the white globes off of the aspen trunks. I remember when I visited Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa how amazing it was to see so many “exotic” plant species that I buy for my garden just growing with wild abandon along side the trail. One plant I remember in particular is the Kniphofia (red hot poker). I have never been able to get it to grow in my Vermont garden – though I have seen it growing in a field of catmint at the now-retired Addison gardens near Vergennes, Vermont. Perhaps I should try just once more, if only as a memorial to my time in Tanzania. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Raquel says:

    The alliums are so beautiful! I would love to grow these in my backyard.

  • Genevieve says:

    Hello Erica- I have meant to tell you for months about an exciting oddball seen growing en masse at the Denver botanic Gardens…Leonitis menthifolia…from 6-10′ tall! Wonderful orange monarda-like blooms; just wild! Skagit Gardens is introducing their version of it this spring, ‘Savannah Sunset.’ They say it prefers lots of water; everyone has a downspout! Denver tends not to cater to thirsty plants, so I wonder if the straight species isn’t more water wise???? Check it out for your own playground:)