Most often, when gardeners talk about Alliums, they’re referring to the large bulbs that produce huge purple (and sometimes white or pink) flowers in the spring. In my garden, that includes A. Globemaster, Mt. Everest and Karataviense, plus the smaller but very purple, Purple Sensation. But there’s a group of lesser known Alliums, smaller in stature but perhaps with a more intriguing shape, that bloom in early to mid summer.
Allium sphaerocephalon, commonly known as Drumstick Allium, is perhaps the most familiar of the three. The small bulbs are easy to plant and inexpensive to buy, and they reproduce with ease. Simply let the flowers go to seed and then let the seeds fall. In the early spring, with frost heave, I often find a multitude of small white bulbs, sometimes with green sprouts already, on the soil surface. These I collect and plant all over. Native to Europe, northern Africa and western Asia, these are quite tall (the flower stalks can grow two to three feet high – up to 90 cm) but so slender, with foliage looking like round grass, they don’t take up any room at all. The flowers themselves are small, just a bit bigger than garden chive flowers, with a similar colour, although they start out as a tight green ball before changing to a purply magenta.
Allium cernuum (as the Latin name says, Nodding Onion) is an Allium native to many parts of North America, including Ontario. This flowering onion grows one to two feet high (30 – 60 cm) and the flower stalk appears after narrow, strap-like leaves appear in early spring. This is another easy Allium to grow – I started mine from seed in pots without stratification, but you could also just scratch some seeds into the soil in early spring; it would likely bloom the following year. At one time it was used in the kitchen but not so much any more.
Allium carinatum – known as Keeled Garlic and sometimes Witch’s Garlic – is the same height as A. cernuum and has a similar looking flower, but it emerges from the stalk quite differently:
I’m guessing the name ‘Keeled’ comes from the way two of the sepals remain strictly pointing out after the flower opens, like the keel of a ship. This Allium is native to Europe and parts of Asia and it is also very easy to start from seed. Although it’s said to be hardy just to zone 7 I’ve found the foliage to be mostly evergreen in my zone 5/6 garden.
So there you have it – three small flowering onions for the mid summer garden – two, at least, are a bit unusual and not often seen in cultivation in Canadian gardens. It’s worth tracking down some seeds though, as they can bring a bit of cool purple to a hot garden, provide a nice contrast to the Hemerocallis (daylilies) and Echinacea that are starting now, and fill in some spots after the late spring flowers disappear. Plus, they are care free in my experience, and look lovely as cut flowers in a vase.