Peter Dowdall falls in love all over again with the architectural Allium family

Allium schoenoprasum are also known as chives, onions and garlic, says Peter Dowdall.

There are over 850 species of allium and most of us will certainly have some Allium schoenoprasum, A cepa or A sativum in our kitchen or garden even if we don’t know it — because these are also known as chives, onions and garlic.

My late father professed to being allergic to onions and would insist on not having them in the ‘same county’ never mind on his plate.

He and my mother are gone now, sadly, so I can let the cat out of the bag and say out loud that the mushroom soup which my mother and which he so enjoyed, was based on liquidised onions.

His allergy, I think, owed more to his time in boarding school than any medical reasons. I, on the other hand adore onions, raw, fried, in a stew, mixed with mashed potato — any form and the same too with chives and garlic.

All alliums are strong-smelling and tasting and this is because of the chemical sulphoxides that they produce and the strength of flavour is determined by the level of sulfates or sulphur in the soil.

All alliums produce long monocotyledon leaves, all produce flowers and many species are edible in all parts, the leaf, flower and bulb. 

The flower of the humble chive is a very pretty addition to any herb garden, if we just take the time to stop and admire, very strong tasting to eat mind you, but loved by chefs. I have fallen in love with this genus once more. 

That’s not to say that I was ever out of love with them, but after three weeks of visiting show gardens in the UK and Ireland I’m all about them again. 

And its nothing to do with the scent and flavour. It’s about the pure showmanship of the ornamental varieties.

Designers love these plants for their intricate flower detail — they come together so perfectly in a globe shape on top of sturdy stems — standing aloft like the most beautiful star-spangled lollipops.

In Chelsea, they adorned many of the Artisan Gardens along with stealing the show in the Greening Grey Britain Garden but as ever, it was in the Great Pavilion where they really stopped the traffic.

Such wonderful displays created by the most talented of nurserymen and women and floral artists.

Bloom too, in the Phoenix Park, if not quite awash with alliums was certainly continuing the trend with many of the show gardens using them to great effect.

The Teagasc Garden in association with Pieta House, which won the People’s Choice Award, used them among Buxus balls, replicating the shape of the boxwood on a higher level.

Plant them in drifts as bulbs during the autumn to get the best display, as opposed to individually as one or two on their own can look a bit lost. Position them in open, well-drained soil, as they don’t like to get waterlogged.

However, that doesn’t mean dry soil, rather a good rich medium that doesn’t hold water like clay. As they emerge during late spring the foliage is attractive, but as the flower stems develop this foliage will start to wither. 

Don’t worry when this happens you haven’t done anything wrong, nor is it the symptom of any deficiency, it is totally natural.

I would advise removing the foliage when this happens and leaving the flower stalks come up alone, as the tatty leaves will only take from the display.

The style of your garden will determine how you use them as the effect can be quite different. For a contemporary, minimal look, plant them alone in a gravel or slate bed or for a softer and more traditional look plant them in among grasses or the aforementioned Buxus balls so that the stems are less visible and the flowers are more floating above their partners.

There are hundreds of varieties to choose from nowadays. I have planted a relatively new variety, ‘Pinball Wizard’ in several gardens recently and it has not disappointed.

Rich purple spheres are produced about 10-15cm in diameter on strong stems about 40-50cm high.

Expect to pay a bit more for this variety, as bulbs in autumn, or as plants next spring, but they will be worth it. A christophii is another favourite of mine. 

This tried and trusted species has a much larger yet more open sphere of a paler colour. The intricate detail of the flower is much loved by photographers and lends itself to the more airy and dreamlike planting with an ornamental grass such as Stipa Ponytails.

For a white allium, look no further than the varieties Mont Blanc or Mount Everest.


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