Planting allium, the lollipop of the garden


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Fall bulb catalogs are sweetened with alluring eye candy, including those lollipop-shaped alliums. Their large, globed flower heads consist of petite star-like blossoms that shoot from stems rising 2 to 4 feet. But unless you want to dig up the bulbs and refrigerate them for weeks every year, most alliums are temptations to be resisted.

Southern California has the warm, dry summers these bulbs favor but not the cold winters they usually require. Joan Citron, editor of “Selected Plants for Southern California Gardens,” has tried about 10 kinds in her Reseda garden. For the most part, they’ve thrived only in colder years. “I think they’re gorgeous,” she says, “but they’re not worth the trouble.”


Does that mean gardeners here should steer clear of ornamental alliums, relatives of culinary onion, leek and garlic?

Not necessarily. Though a few can be aggressive and weedy, others will settle in nicely. Garden designer James Duell is bowled over by the 2-foot-wide spheres of amethyst-colored Allium schubertii that thrive amid aloes and agaves in his Culver City garden.

“Although it’s gigantic, the individual florets are loosely arranged, so it has a really delicate look,” he says. “I let the flower stalks linger until the very last minute, then I give a light tug and bring them in the house. I’m getting this wild collection of dried flower heads.”

Other good bets for Southern California, according to Oceanside grower Jim Threadgill, president of Easy to Grow Bulbs: a burgundy species used by florists called Drumsticks (Allium sphaerocephalum); the spiky, silvery-violet Star of Persia (Allium cristophii); and a magenta Mediterranean that he calls Spanish allium (Allium ampeloprasum). “Keep water off of them in the summer,” Threadgill advises, “and you’ll have beautiful flowers for years and years.”

About 40 allium species are native to California. Although smaller and less sensational, some are sweet additions to a garden. Four types dot the Eagle Rock yard of John Wickham, board president of the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers & Native Plants in Sun Valley. They include the wine-red Allium peninsulare and the easy-to-grow Allium unifolium. The foot-high, translucent-white Allium hyalinum mingles with mariposa lilies, orange monkey flowers and purple-blue foothill penstemons.

“I’ve been working with all the California native bulbs to bring them into the foundation’s growing program,” he says.

In the meantime, Telos Rare Bulbs offers six native alliums. Some of the culinary kinds are pretty too. Little white pompoms pop out of Allium tuberosum (Chinese chives). Many ornamental alliums, including Drumsticks and ampeloprasum — are edible. So if yours don’t produce a lollipop bloom, dig up the bulbs and sauté them.

-- Ilsa Setziol

Photos and credits, from top: Allium hyalinum (by Ken Gilliland), Allium cristophii (from Easy to Grow Bulbs), Allium unifolium (from Telos Rare Bulbs) and Allium peninsulare (by Ken Gilliland).