IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN a dream, but I think I remember an old Jeopardy! episode with the category “Alimentary Alliums.” In it, Alex asks, “This rare member of the onion family is found on sea cliffs along coastal Cornwall and Dorset” and a contestant volunteers “What is Babington’s Leek?” Given the scores of edible members in the Allium tribe, an entire Jeopardy game could be dedicated to uncovering the fascinating details of onions, shallots, leeks and garlic. And let’s not forget chives, Allium schoenoprasum, a plant which taught me that some alliums also have beautiful flowers.
And that is what I’m thinking about today, onions grown not for their culinary usefulness but for their value as “eye candy,” which I call “ornamental alliums.”
Last weekend, I biked through lovely Mills Park in Kinderhook, where a large floral display including perennial blue flax, white narcissus and magenta alliums got me to pull over for a closer look. Unfortunately, my firsthand knowledge of ornamental alliums is slight, so I won’t be participating in onion-themed Jeopardy! anytime soon. I therefore won’t hazard a guess as to exactly which allium grows in Kinderhook, but I must say they were impressive.
Many ornamental alliums are described as a large ball of small star-shaped flowers in shades of lavender, magenta, purple or violet. These round “umbels” are borne on long, thin green stems, with just a few often non-descript leaves at the base. Allium hollandicum, sometimes called the Persian onion, is a typical of these, growing to between one-and-a-half and three feet tall. The variety ‘Purple Sensation’ has darker flowers and has earned an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in the United Kingdom. Allium ‘Globemaster’ is a hybrid cross between A. christophii and A. macleanii and is sterile, so it doesn’t spread promiscuously, and grows stems between three and four feet tall with a lavender sphere on top. Allium giganteum, which unsurprisingly is called the giant allium, boasts softball-sized purple flower clusters on towering stems of five feet. Despite its grand size, sources say it doesn’t need staking. While these large-type alliums are individually impressive, one solo plant looks silly, so garden designers say it is best to plant them in groups of at least five to seven.
More variations abound. For blue globes of flowers, try Allium caeruleum, which grows to two feet. Small, egg-shaped purple flower heads on very thin stems characterize drumstick allium (Allium sphaerocephalon). Turkistan onion (Allium karataviense) has fat, attractive leaves, floral globes of pale pink, and grows only a foot tall. Lady’s Leek (Allium cernuum) boasts delicate, open flower sprays of white, pink or lilac and, like most ornamental alliums, needs well-drained soil and not wet feet. Tumbleweed onion, Allium schubertii, grows about two feet high and has a loose sphere of lavender flowers of varying lengths, giving it the bizarre appearance of a firework or space alien. It also makes a good dried flower. There are dozens more, providing an ornamental onion for every taste.
To contact David Chinery, the horticulture educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, email