The Beautiful Onions of Spring

The genus Allium includes onions, garlic, leeks, scallions, and several dozen ornamental species. All Alliums are alliaceous, which is an excellent word you can hold onto for occasions when you want to impress others with your botanical knowledge. It means they smell like onions.

Allium 'Globemaster' in the Parkway Bed.
Allium ‘Globemaster’ in the Parkway Bed.

In our garden we have two ornamental Alliums that bloom in spring. Both are at their peak this weekend.

Out in the front garden we have a clump of the Allium hybrid ‘Globemaster’. ‘Globemaster’ sounds like it could be a character from The Avengers (its superpower: deters deer and rabbits! Actually, that is an important point, deer and rabbits really do not like Alliums).

They say Allium 'Globemaster' doesn't need staking, but these three say there are exceptions to every rule.
They say Allium ‘Globemaster’ doesn’t need staking, but these three say there are exceptions to every rule.

We started with three ‘Globemaster’ bulbs, and now have a clump of about 18. Alliums like to spread if the conditions are right. Baby Allium bulbs (called bulbils or bulblets) split off from the big bulbs but also are created in the flower clusters and drop to the ground.

As ‘Globemaster’ has spread, it has retained its height (about 3′-4′) but the flowers have become smaller than the original 10″ globes. Probably it’s time to dig them up and replant.

A drift of Allium 'Purple Sensation' in the back garden.
A drift of Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ in the back garden.

In the back garden, we have A. aflatunense ‘Purple Sensation’. This Allium also likes to reproduce – from a handful of bulbs it has created a drift about 6′ long, even though it gets only part sun (full sun is optimal). ‘Purple Sensation’ is shorter and has smaller flower clusters than ‘Globemaster’.

Allium 'Purple Sensation' with flowers of Cranberrybush Viburnum.
Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ with flowers of Cranberrybush Viburnum.

Finding companion plants is an important challenge with spring-blooming Alliums, because the foliage dies back and can leave you with bare ground by summer. Among the ‘Purple Sensation’ bulbs we have Great Forget-Me-Not (Brunnera macrophylla), Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea), and Short’s Aster (Symphyotrichum shortii).

Alliums are popular with bees and other pollinators.
Alliums are popular with bees and other pollinators.

Also, last year I planted three ‘White Swan’ Peonies (not yet blooming). In past summers I have been not quite satisfied with the look of this bed after the Alliums were done – but we’ll see how it goes this year.

Alliums with Wild Geranum.
Alliums with Wild Geranum.

I certainly do like Alliums, though no one has ever accused me of being an Allium fanatic (as opposed to, say, tulips).

Allium 'Purple Sensation' with Golden Alexander.
Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ with Golden Alexander and Great Forget-Me-Not.

There are also a couple of summer-blooming Alliums in our garden but I will leave those for another day.

Do you grow spring-blooming Alliums? If so, which companion plants do you think work best?

68 Comments on “The Beautiful Onions of Spring”

  1. They look lovely, especially next to a pathway. Yes, I grow Alliums too, but not these large sort. I also find it hard to get the companions right. Mine are among the Veronica that has just started flowering, but when I have to cut that back it looks a little sparse…

  2. Well done! I have a few here, yes, but only one kind and nowhere as many as yours. Your garden looks lovely. They do self-seed; though the original plants seem to be overwhelmed by other herbs (it’s in the herb bed) there’s a whole new clump starting nearby.

  3. Yes, I do grow alliums. In the past I haven’t had much luck with them but I tried them ‘one more time’ and found a spot they like. I started with three and I have 7 of them this year. Yay… With them there are some bearded Iris that bloom about the same time, then some wild iris (can’t remember what they are, and some Rudebekia and some tall phlox behind them. I don’t hardly know they are gone when the seed heads dry up. I love those tall purple spheres. They make me happy. They appear as Nature’s balloons to me. They seem cheerful.

  4. I’ve been working on overcoming my longstanding antipathy to alliums (born of decades of waging fruitless war against the wild variety, which is a noxious weed hereabouts) and as luck would have it I discovered that the previous owners planted a small group of what might be A. christophiii near the mailbox. I have to admit I find them very pretty, so perhaps it’s time to admit that not all members of the allium family are necessarily the Evil Empire…. in the garden, at least. (As food, they all make me deathly ill and thus must be avoided at all costs!)

  5. I am so envious! I planted some and they came up beautifully their fist year, but this year (their second) I got lots of leaves but no flowers at all (insert sad face). I’ve got to do my research and see what I’m doing wrong, because seeing yours have really made me want them to bloom next spring.

  6. I’ve planted them with ornamental grasses, especially the evergreen ones that don’t get cut back to the ground in late winter, like Mexican feather grass, or the ones that flower about the same time, like Melica altissima. Or Carex, which also flowers around the same time and looks its best in late spring.

  7. My first attempt at growing Alliums was a complete failure – I planted them where they got a bit too damp and rotted. Not one to be held back, I tried again last year in two different spot and am thankful that they’ve all appeared this year (and multiplied). I now need to concentrate on hiding the foliage in one bed in particular. I used a peony and it’s not quite doing the job I thought it would.
    I do hope they spread themselves around like yours has Jason – they are best in larger drifts I think and your drifts are right up my street. Writing this has just reminded me that I was given some seedlings from a dwarf variety last year, I must remember to have a look for them tomorrow.

  8. Jason, you know I have several different alliums, including Purple Sensation. I am really a much bigger fan of those alliums (chives, allium ‘Summer Beauty’, and the curly blue allium) with foliage that can add to the garden rather than need to be hidden. I grow my Purple Sensation amidst my balloon flowers and nepeta subsessilis; both of which are slow to get going in the spring.

  9. I do grow them but mine aren’t this amazing large variety which I must say I NEED to put in!!! Your shots are so beautiful! Your alliums really highlight your beds in these photos Jason! Thank you for the inspiration…Im looking forward to your post on your summer bloomers! Nicole

  10. When we visited the Iris gardens, Alliums were used very effectively in the borders with peonies, lupine the iris and some other perennials I can’t remember. “Alliacious” sounds like a word invented by Mary Poppins. I’ll bet if she gardens she will have plenty of Alliums.

  11. The spring flowering Alliums don’t do very well for me, they need more moisture than many people imagine. I am more successful with the later summer flowering ones. A. cristophii does OK but doesn’t usually return for more than two years, I admire your drift of ‘Purple Sensation’

  12. Hello Jason, I love alliums and particularly Allium Christophii, which I had several in the previous garden. I’m planning to plant many bulbs this autumn. They do self-seed well easily – have you found yours spreading by seed, they look like ordinary grass when they first germinate and appear.

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