The beauty of alliums — know your flowering onions

They are a great alternative to tulips, helping to fill the gap between spring and summer, and able to multiply year after year
Image of Robin Lane Fox

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Now is the time for an annual act of faith: looking ahead for bulbs which might flower well in spring. This year I am a battle-scarred veteran. In early spring rampageous badgers ploughed through my beds of tulips and rooted up the crocuses emerging in my lawns. In one night they destroyed the lot. How can I outwit them this year?

I will not go into the remedies which some of you have kindly sent me, ranging in savagery from electric fencing to pictures of a 1930s German snap trap designed to catch Herr Dachs when active in unwelcome places. I will merely admit that last year’s preventive measure, the soaking of each tulip bulb in neat creosote, was useless. I even wonder if it contributed to the bulbs’ eventual rotting. This year, a female minister of the church recommended to me dried chilli flakes, lightly dug into the soil above each bulb. They might scorch a squirrel’s palate but I do not think they have a prayer of deterring a badger for whom Broxit means Broxit. I will give them a miss.

In so far as I plant any tulips, I will be keeping them in containers well above ground. Even there, badgers knocked them over last year and pillaged them. I will be circling them this year with barbed wire to teach their paws a sharp lesson. I simply have to try the cheerful little tulip called Honky Tonk, a beauty in apricot yellow which I saw at its best in May in the fine garden at Hermannshof in Weinheim, Germany. It was the supreme sight of a sunny day and so I want to copy it. In a heavy pot it ought to be safe. Otherwise I find that at ground level the excellent Tulipa bakeri Lilac Wonder is of no interest to a badger’s snout. It persists well in a raised bed and is excellent among spring aubrieta and alpines near a house window. It has none of the height or bedding impact of tall lily-flowered varieties, but unlike them it survives from year to year.

Tulipa bakeri LilacWonder © Alamy

Wildlife is not my only reason for shorting tulips. In recent years April has become the hottest, not the cruellest, spring month. A few days in full-on April sun cause bigger flowered tulips to go over very quickly, leaving untidy leaves and a petal-free stem after less than a week of colour. I had begun to think big tulips were no longer great value even without the badgering hazard. Later in May, in the fine gardens of London’s Inner Temple, I noticed how the expert head gardener, Andrea Brunsendorf, had already reduced the use of tulips in her garden’s splendid spring bedding. She told me she too had decided that in our warmer spring weather tulips are no longer good value for money. Instead, she uses bedding plants, not only wallflowers in carefully chosen colours but violas, verbenas, subtly shaded foxgloves, grown on in pots, and good old bellis daisies. Nothing on four legs ever chews them to bits. Foxgloves escape badgers’ try-ons.

Allium Firmament © Alamy

Myself, I am going over to alliums, the flowering cousins of garden onions. The bulbs are unpalatable to squirrels and the leaves, invaluably, are already turning brown and dying away when most of them come into flower. There is none of that long wait for leaves to turn yellow and die off after flowering. Summer bedding can therefore follow alliums at once. Unlike tulips, alliums live on in the ground and multiply from year to year.

Recent trials in the RHS garden at Wisley have classified varieties of special merit for gardeners. If you are lost in the lists, go for ones with an award of garden merit. In recent years I have had great success with two varieties which might even be too successful on more favourable soil. Allium cowanii is an excellent shining white which stands out among lower plants in May. Soon afterwards Allium roseum comes through with a pale-pink flush on its head of small flowers. Books warn that it may not be fully hardy and that it may become invasive. With me it has behaved politely for the past four years, surviving one very cold start to a year. I love the way the pink tinting becomes more prominent with age.

Allium stipitatum © Alamy

All very well, you may be thinking, but these small-flowered alliums do not have the impact of a beautiful Darwin tulip. The recent spate of taller varieties are quite another matter. The fullest list is offered by J Parker’s at Old Trafford in Manchester (jparkers.co.uk). They take orders for £50 or more on wholesale terms and supply new varieties which have very big bulbs. A few of them among spring bedding plants will carry on the season from late May to early June. There is much more here than the familiar Allium Purple Sensation of many outdoor gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Here are six to try. Allium karataviense has big flat leaves and rounded flowers in a rather unappealing shade of brown purple-red at a height of less than 1ft. The flowers are impressive for their shape but the white form is the one to order. The white is ivory-white and stands out in a small group of six bulbs together. A few go a long way. At a greater height Allium Mont Blanc is even more impressive, the flowers being cream white, also ball-shaped but on stems more than 3ft high. I really rate it, again in small groups of five bulbs together. Twenty then will cover a good span of ground.

Allium karataviense © Alamy

Yellow cluster-flowered alliums are also available, the best being Allium obliquum from eastern Russia although it flowers later in June and July. Nobody has yet named one Glitter Balls, but if Labour politician Ed Balls continues to show off on the dance floor in Strictly Come Dancing, we will surely have one for his tailcoat next year. Meanwhile, the boldest flowers fall on the line between purple and red. Allium Magic has very big flowers just on the red-purple divide and stands up to 3ft high, flowering in late May. Stipitatum has pointed flowers in a deeper shade of red-purple and is easier to find in British catalogues. Pink Jewel is a particular favourite of mine, true to its name with dense heads of pink onion flowers on tall stems up to 3ft tall, again in late May. I saw Allium Firmament for the first time last year and rated it highly, a more purple-headed variety with a shiny tinge to its big heads at a height of 2.5ft. It is a late one, however, waiting until the roses are well out in June.

If vampires hate garlic, badgers surely hate a mouthful of onion. By swapping alliums for tulips I have high hopes of a late spring garden once again. There is only one cloud on the horizon. Alliums are all grown to make big bulbs in rich Dutch soil and then imported into Britain. Next year, on present form, the post-Brexit exchange rates will add about 12 per cent to the price. Buy now in the shelter of their suppliers’ pre-Brexit currency hedge.

Photographs: Alamy

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