Onions without tears

Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center

Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center

No cook would want to be without the common onion, Allium cepa, an essential kitchen staple that figures in cuisines around the world.  But not every onion is there to be sliced and diced – some up-scale members of the onion family are ornamental species that add spice to the garden.

The alliums include flowering varieties that offer unique shapes, dazzling colors and impressive girth not found among more familiar bulb flowers. Many produce perfect spheres composed of hundreds of tiny florets and look charmingly like a round lollipop on a slender stick of a stem. Others bloom as starbursts of stiff quills a foot or more across or as clusters of nodding blossoms that resemble cascading fireworks.

These plants may have remained a sideline, a minor player among the “minor” spring bulbs, except for a virtue that has become increasingly important in New Jersey gardens: Deer don’t touch them, and neither do other raiders like chipmunks, squirrels and voles.

This fall instead of courting heartbreak with animal snack foods – tulips, crocuses, lilies – try planting some fancy alliums instead.  You’ll have some onions for the table, but they’ll wind up in the vase, not on the plate.

Alliums are popular in Europe and are a special favorite of Dutch designers and breeders. The Netherlands is famed for its centuries-old expertise with bulb flowers and even today, the worldwide production and distribution networks are in Dutch hands. Dutch landscape design Piet Oudolf has often featured plantings of hardy geraniums and low-growing ornamental grasses, mingled with dramatic alliums in a tapestry of color.

Planted in the fall, alliums extend the spring bulb season with flowers that bloom between late May and mid July. They are relatively inexpensive, too. While popular varieties like the giant, soccer ball-sized ‘Globemaster’ might go for $6 or $7 per bulb, you can get the white ‘Graceful Beauty,’ dating to 1857, for $1 apiece and many others for as little as 25 cents each.

Price is only part of the value equation. The flowers are long lasting, at their prime for about three weeks and persisting for quite a bit longer, changing color as they age. They can be dried for use in arrangements and even spray-painted bright colors if that appeals.

'Globemaster' Longfield Gardens

'Globemaster' Longfield Gardens

The color range isn’t all that broad, with the majority offering a range of purples, violets and whites. There are exceptions: the cornflower blue Allium azureum, the rosy drumstick allium and the bright yellow Allium moly, for example. There’s even the oddball known as ‘Hair,’ which has blossoms of fine, curling green strands that look like a hairdo gone wild.

Alliums prefer full sun and a well-drained soil but aren’t heavy feeders. They are rarely bothered by insect pests and their strong stems don’t need staking no matter how tall they grow (some varieties reach a full three feet). Unlike tulips, flowering onions tend to return year after year.

Do ornamental onions smell? Not really. Unless you crush or bruise the foliage you won’t notice much scent, and any oniony odor disappears once the cut stems are submerged in water. Critters with more sensitive noses may detect an unpleasant odor but that’s a good thing since it keeps them at bay.

These are onions without tears, easy to grow and striking both outdoors and in the vase. Try a few – you’ll find they make a very tasty addition to any garden.


Bulb sources:

Longfield Gardens, 1245 Airport Road, Lakewood, NJ. Call 855-534-2733 or see longfield-gardens.com.

Colorblends, 747 Barnum Ave., Bridgeport, CT 06608. Call 888-847-8637 or visit colorblends.com. 

John Scheepers, 23 Tulip Drive, Bantam, CT 06750. Call 860-567-0838 or go to johnscheepers.com.