When most people hear the name Allium, they probably think of a large globe-shaped, purple flower cluster on a tall stalk. Surprisingly, the purple ball allium is just one of around 700 species that belong to the genus Allium. Many other Allium species are more abundant, such as onion, garlic, chive, leek, scallions and shallot. As you can see, both ornamental and edible varieties are part of this group. Being ornamental does not exclude a plant from also being edible, as most all of the Allium species have edible leaves and bulbs. At the same time, the plants grown for food have attractive flowers. Allium have a unique compound which gives them the familiar smell and taste. This compound is thought to have evolved as a way for the plants to fend off insect pests. Though rodents, insects and deer stay away from Allium, the smell and taste are appetizing to humans. Most allium have a smell, it is just stronger in some plants. In others, it can only be smelled when the leaves are crushed.
For hundreds of years, people have grown Allium as food, flavoring and medicine. They are native to the northern hemisphere, except for Chile, Brazil and tropical Africa. Allium are perennials which grow from bulbs, and most have unremarkable strappy leaves. Leaves in some species die back before the flowers open, or while the flowers are blooming. This may tend to be unattractive, so it’s wise to plant some shorter plants around the base as camouflage.The flowers grow on tubular stalks which can be anywhere from 3 inches to 4 feet tall. Bulbs can be planted in the fall for spring blooming, in a spot that receives full sun and has well drained soil. Though Allium plants form seeds, I’m told that you have to be pretty patient to actually grow plants from them, as it may take years. You’re better off dividing the bulb to get more plants.
Though the big purple ball Allium are very popular, there are many other types. I don’t have the volleyball sized purple Globemaster, but I do have 3 types in my own yard. One is a purple ball, which gets about 5 inches across. The other is a white ball, which is a little smaller, maybe 4 inches. My third one is very different. Like the others, it forms what I would call a pod at the end of the stalk, but unlike the others this pod is not round, it is tube shaped with a pointed end. The pod grows and gets all lumpy, then breaks open, revealing many little buds on little stalks. When these open, they are bell-shaped, with burgandy inside and greenish white around the edges. They all face the ground, which makes it difficult to get a decent photograph. Besides the 3 that I own, there are loads of others that come in shapes such as cup, pompon, semi-circle and pendulous. Allium can be found with many different colors of blooms, including purple, pink, white, mauve, greenish and yellow. Flowers either hang down, or stand upright.
Blooming outdoors, the flower clusters last for two weeks or more. Allium make good cut flowers, lasting a long time in water. They are also used extensively in dried flower arrangements. Though the leaves get pretty ugly after the flower blooms, the seedhead is still attractive, and I usually leave mine standing there until I clean up in the fall. I’m told that after a time, Allium will grow from single plants into clusters, but that has yet to happen here. Even alone, Allium are pretty amazing, and I look forward to spring when they start to appear.