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Awesome alliums!

2016 is the year of the allium By Kathleen Laliberte

Allium Nigrum And Purpureum. O

rnamental alliums have so many good things going for them that it’s a wonder they’re not more widely plant- ed. But alliums are definitely on the rise. They seem

to be popping up everywhere: in gardening books and maga- zines, on Pinterest boards, and in public and private gardens across the country. Most allium flowers have a long, leafless stalk topped with

a globe-like bloom that’s made up of a cluster of individual florets. Like exclamation points, alliums stand out from other plants, adding emphasis and excitement wherever they’re grown. In recent years, alliums have been used to great effect in the

naturalistic plantings of garden designers such as Piet Oudolf and James van Sweden. They are ideal companions for orna- mental grasses and other low maintenance perennials such as sedum, rudbeckia, echincacea and salvia. Deer are another reason alliums are increasingly popular.

Some gardeners fight a daily battle with roving bands of deer that will munch on anything green. Alliums are on the short list of plants deer tend to avoid. In the garden, the plants are odorless, but step on them or chew on them and the cell walls break, releasing volatile, sulfur-based chemical compounds that have a pungent odor and bitter taste. These sulfurous compounds, classified as secondary metabo-

lites, are a defense mechanism against diseases and insects as well as predators. This makes alliums virtually bulletproof. And, though the foliage repels, the flowers are filled with sweet nectar that’s highly attractive to honeybees, bumblebees and other pollinators.

36 • SSummer ummer22016 016 History Edible alliums are among the world’s oldest cultivated

plants, but there is no record of them being used as orna- mentals until plant hunters began collecting alliums in the mid-1800s. Another 150 years passed before the horticultural world started to fully appreciate their garden potential. Alliums are members of the onion family, which is a big

one and has more than the usual number of taxonomy prob- lems. Formerly classified as alliaceae, they are now amarylli- daceae, subfamily allioideae. Experts are unable to agree on the number of species, with estimates ranging between 500 and 750. Like their culinary relatives, garlic and shallots, most orna-

mental onions grow from bulbs. Planted in fall, they bloom from late spring to early summer. The flowers have hollow stems that rise above strappy basal leaves. As with other spring- blooming bulbs, the foliage begins to wither away shortly after or sometimes even while the flowers are blooming. Though the foliage isn’t around for long, it’s enough to give the bulbs the energy they need to return and flower year after year. Basic Types/Varieties

The most popular ornamental alliums are grown from fall-

planted bulbs, and the showiest of these are the big-headed ones such as ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Globemaster’. Alliums are native to mountainous regions in Central Asia, where winters are cold, summers are hot, and the soils are thin and porous. This gives them a tolerance, and even a preference, for dry grow- ing conditions – ideal credentials for today’s water conscious landscaping.

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