All in on Alliums!

An image of Allium 'Millennium' ornamental onion.

Alliums…I love their toughness, functional beauty and versatility in the garden. Some varieties sprout gorgeous gigantic blooms, while others give scrumptious veggies and herbs for cooking.

By Abby Lapides

[This article was first published in the Gateway Gardener September 2017 issue.]

Alliums…I love their toughness, functional beauty and versatility in the garden. Some varieties sprout gorgeous gigantic blooms, while others give scrumptious veggies and herbs for cooking. Since I’m sure we’re all familiar with the more traditional alliums—garlic, onions and chives—let’s dig a little deeper into this fabulous ornamental and edible genus.

A photo of Abby Lapides alongside Allium giganteum.

The author gives perspective to Allium giganteum.

Who doesn’t want a show-stopping, out-of-this-world flower display? I know I do. Many of the bulb-type alliums, or ornamental onions, that you plant in the fall give us exactly that. ‘Gladiator’, ‘Globemaster’ and giganteum each give us 6-8 inch perfectly round purple balls that rise up on erect, tall green stalks in early summer. The behemoth flowers of ‘Schubertii’ can grow to a whopping 20” in diameter. The monster blossoms look like fireworks exploding in the garden. Each bulb produces one flower; look for these in garden centers starting in September. I like planting these in groups of at least three to create a dramatic display, but planted individually they also provide a focal point in a mixed perennial garden.

Looking for a unique beauty like the large ornamental onions, but want something a little smaller? Try ‘Millennium’. Use this superb plant instead of monkey grass, as its glossy green foliage forms neat round clumps. In midsummer many perfectly round 2” globes of pink rise up over the strappy foliage. Its almost complete imperviousness to disease and pests, showy sterile flowers that don’t reseed, and drought tolerance are just some of the reasons that ‘Millennium’ is the 2018 Perennial Plant of the Year.

A photo of the Allium 'Medusa' ornamental onion.

Allium ‘Medusa’
photo courtesy Walters Gardens

Don’t be scared by how the twisty leaves of ‘Medusa’ can mesmerize. The nodding flower buds resemble the heads of snakes until they straighten up and open to reveal amethyst-purple blossoms. ‘Medusa’ is easy to grow and needs little care to perform like a champ. ‘Medusa’ and ‘Millennium’ both grow to about 18” tall, making them look picture-perfect in the front of the garden or edging along a walkway.

The Missouri native nodding onion is a sweet plant that mixes well with Missouri primrose and little bluestem grass. Before the bright pink flowers open the flower buds point down, causing the stalks to look like shepherd’s hooks. The strappy green leaves look like shiny grass. Growing naturally on rocky slopes, this drought tolerant native is easy to grow in well-drained soil.

I will say that I am somewhat biased when it comes to edible alliums; I use garlic, chives, onions or shallots at least once a day in my kitchen. I could write a whole column on my love of garlic, or the many different ways I use onions and chives. What I love about growing these flavor giants is that there’s not a lot of diseases or pests that bother the allium family, unlike the persnickety tomato. I enjoy just about every type of edible alliums, but I do have my favorites.

The ornamental and deliciously edible perennial, bunching onion, is a must-grow in my garden. Snow-white orbs bloom in summer on top of large, tubular, hollow leaves. The bulb of the bunching onion is not much wider than the plant stem, making it “bulbless”. They have a similar look and taste to a scallion that you’d buy at the grocery store and can be used interchangeably in dishes. This is one of my go-to veggies as I can easily add them at the end of cooking. They are particularly good in bean salads, Asian cooking and as a chili topper.

Elephant garlic is a fun type of leek that resembles a giant bulb of garlic. The bulbs easily grow into the size of large fist. They taste like a mild mix of onions and garlic. As a lazy cook I love to use them in dishes when I only want to peel and chop one type of allium. As a lazy gardener I love to grow them because I just plant the bulb in fall and harvest in summer without doing much else than watch it grow.

Alliums are excellent nectar sources for pollinators and aren’t bothered by deer or rabbits. In fact, some believe that alliums are deer deterrents. Plant them around some of deer’s more favorite plants and see if they do the job. Most alliums prefer full sun and well drained soil.

Abby Lapides is owner and a speaker at Sugar Creek Gardens Nursery in Kirkwood, Missouri. She has degrees from the University of Missouri, and is a member of the Landscape and Nursery Association of Greater St. Louis.