Growing alliums: best varieties

by James Alexander-Sinclair

Looking at the bulb catalogue that is sitting on my desk as I write, I see that there are no fewer than one hundred and sixty one varieties of allium.

Allium flowersLooking at the bulb catalogue that is sitting on my desk as I write, I see that there are no fewer than one hundred and sixty one varieties of allium.

These vary from the tall to the short, the deep purple to pale pink. Some have heads the size of muffled hens while others are as small and delicate as the eyelashes of newborn babies. Some flower in May and others in July. Which one should you choose? How do we know which are the best, most reliable plants? It can get a bit confusing, especially when confronted with exotic names like Allium cyathophorum var. farreri or Allium tschimganicum.

Obviously the best way to choose your alliums is to hang on to the golden words written on the pages of Gardeners' World Magazine (never does any harm to oil up to the boss occasionally) but there is a close second.

You may well have seen the words AGM on plant labels or in catalogues. This does not mean Annual General Meeting but instead refers to the Award of Garden Merit. This is the ultimate recommendation, the sine qua non for any plant. The award was first introduced in 1922 and it means that this particular variety has been exhaustively tested by the Royal Horticultural Society. It has been grown in various conditions under the supervision of an expert committee of volunteers who regularly inspect and discuss the various pros and cons of each plant. Visit Wisley to see the trial grounds for yourself.

So, as a simple rule of thumb, if you find yourself confused and discombobulated by too much choice then go for the one with the AGM sticker. But back to my confusing list of alliums, I notice that there are fifteen AGM plants. To make your job of choosing them even simpler, here are my top five:

Allium caeruleum: a late-flowering, small-headed blue variety. Height 0.6m, flowers May/June.

Allium 'Globemaster': a huge and spectacular mauvey number, with tight packed petals. Height 0.8m, flowers May/June.

Allium hollandicum: probably the most popular variety. Dark purple, perky tennis ball sized flowerheads. Height 1m, flowers June/July.

Allium moly 'Jeannine': double stemmed with yellow flowers. Height 0.5m, flowers May/June.

Allium unifolium: a pink flowered variety, shortish (25cm) but good for cutting. Height 0.5m, flowers May/June.

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Gardeners' World Web User 29/08/2011 at 10:14

And avoid Allium triquetrum which can escape into the verges and out into the country where it is threatening our native hedge flowers. I have also seen advertised Allium vineale which will colonise lawns and make the garden smell of onions every time the grass is mown. Allium tuberosa is looking great at the moment and is noy too tall, about two feet, and white. I like your selection, James. Allium unifolium is one of my favourites.

Gardeners' World Web User 29/08/2011 at 10:21

kathryn/brock, discombobulated is an American slang word meaning disconcerted or disturbed. It is a difficult word to say or spell but entertaining to use occasionally. Gardeners who read their Gardeners World Mag. assiduously and contribute to this blog are hardly likely to be so. Does the editor read the responses to your blog as well, James?

Gardeners' World Web User 29/08/2011 at 15:27

Shouldn't have this article been called "Varieties of Alliums"? As disappointingly, there is nothing about growing them in this article.

Gardeners' World Web User 29/08/2011 at 16:09

If you have neutral or alkaline soil, tottenham, alliums are very easy to grow. Just buy the bulbs and put in pot or border, about three times the depth of the bulb. The large purple ones look stunning planted to rise above lavender bushes. They look best in big clumps with something frothy beneath tem as they stand up like soldiers and need softening, I think. Alchemilla mollis would look good or pink hardy geraniums. To ensure the bulbs go on flowering year after year don't let them seed, but cut the flowerhead down to 2inches when it is past its best. Have a go. I think you'll get gasps of admiration for your display.

Gardeners' World Web User 30/08/2011 at 09:59

Tottenham - good point, thank you for that. We have amended the title accordingly. Best Kate

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