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Try Some Perennials From The Allium Family – for Sep. 2, 2010

In September many home gardeners begin the task of cleaning up their perennial borders and hand in hand with this job comes the rearranging, relocating, removal and addition of perennials as we attempt to redesign borders to achieve a more pleasing effect. I don’t think gardeners are ever entirely satisfied with their borders since we are constantly adding plants to achieve that elusive perfect garden!

In the fall we often have the opportunity to purchase perennials at fire sale prices as garden centres try to get rid of any leftover stock before freeze-up. Members of one family of plants, however, are available for sale only at this time of year, and while not likely offered at sale prices, these plants are still well worth considering when buying additional perennials for the garden. When purchasing perennials for our borders, we rarely consider onions, but there are some members of the onion or allium family that are quite magnificent ornamental plants. Being one of the largest plant families, it is no surprise that at least some of them would be useful as decorative plants, and there are enough such varieties to ensure a good choice of colour, height and bloom time.

Most of us have a clump of perennial chives in our gardens and eagerly snip off a few of the early green shoots in the spring to use in the kitchen. Common chives is a decorative plant that will form flower buds and the top of the entire plant will be covered with pink umbrels of bloom by early June if the plant is not clipped for culinary purposes. After the flowers have faded, the plants can be sheared to prevent prolific self-seeding and to encourage another round of growth and flowering.

In the fall, about the time we are starting to clear away debris and revise our borders, a late-blooming chives-garlic chives-comes into flower. This member of the allium family, often called Chinese chives, takes all summer to develop its tall stems which eventually produce flat-topped umbrels of florets. The blooms of garlic chives are pure white and although members of the onion family are not often referred to as “pleasantly scented,” garlic chives does have a pleasing smell. The individual florets are tiny and star shaped and each umbrel is comprised of several dozen individual florets, similar to the umbrels of other alliums except the umbrels of garlic chives tend to be flat rather than round.

Several more showy alliums are available for purchase in the fall and can be grown successfully here. These alliums tend to be short-lived perennials rarely lasting no more than five years, but consistent propagation by multiplying the plants using small underground bulb offsets will ensure that the plants endure in the garden. Probably the most popular allium, and the hardiest, is the so-called drumstick allium, Allium caeruleum. Tough plants that are rated Zone 2, drumstick alliums will produce round, blue umbrels two to three cm in diameter. Like most members of the allium family, the drumstick allium isn’t too particular about soil type and is also quite drought tolerant. Like most alliums, the foliage of drumstick alliums tends to wither and die well before the end of the growing season, so it is a good idea to locate these plants behind other perennials which will hide the unsightly foliage later in the season.

Several other alliums which can be grown in our area include Allium christophii, which produces medium-pink umbrels that are up to 20 cm in diameter, and Allium Globemaster, a cross between A. christophii and A. macleanii, whose large, dark-mauve blooms are produced on stiff, erect stems. Both of these alliums are spring/early-summer bloomers and grow from a basal rosette of foliage from which the sturdy stems arise. Allium aflatunense is another larger-flowered variety that can be successfully grown here, although it is rated Zone 3 so it should be planted in a more sheltered spot to ensure its survival over the winter. Its bright-pink umbrels are about 10 cm in diameter larger than those of drumstick alliums but smaller than those of Allium christophii. A rather unique allium and one that also is hardy in our Prairie region is Allium karataviense Ivory Queen, which has huge ivorycoloured blooms that are comparably short, held on short stems just above the broad, succulent leaves which are quite different from the narrow, strap-shaped leaves of most alliums.

These plants attract bees and butterflies to the garden so they are often included in so-called butterfly gardens, and they are useful in a naturalized setting as they self-seed profusely and will spread throughout the garden if allowed to set seed. Alliums are not attractive to deer or rabbits, so for those of us whose gardens are bothered by such pests, these are useful plants indeed. Alliums add vertical accents to a flower border when they are in bloom and serve as focal points when in full bloom. – Albert Parsons writes from

Minnedosa, Manitoba

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Severalmoreshowy alliumsareavailable forpurchaseinthe fallandcanbegrown successfullyhere.

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