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Ornamental summer stunners

Date

Denise Gadd

Alliums are gems in the summer garden.

Alliums are gems in the summer garden.

THERE is nothing more annoying than yearning for a particular flower in the garden and realising it's too late to plant the wretched thing. Alliums are a case in point. I adore them and saw many when I visited England and the Chelsea Flower Show in May. Designers used them in their show gardens to stunning effect and landscapers here also feature them strongly. They blend well with other flowers but still manage to be the star turn, especially mass plantings of Allium giganteum, with stems growing to 1.8 metres and 10-centimetre to 15-centimetre-diameter violet to deep-purple flower heads towering over the floral pack.

At Chelsea, designers used them with Queen Anne's lace, poppies, irises, hollyhocks and salvias, creating a floral meadow effect, but the alliums always stood out. Another reason to include these ornamental gems in your garden is the leaves die down long before the flowers open, so it doesn't matter if they're planted with other showy varieties as their style won't be cramped. If you forgot to plant allium bulbs in autumn for summer flowering, the 'Drumstick' variety, or round-headed garlic, is available from Lambley Nursery so you can plant some for a summer show.

A. sphaerocephalon is aptly named because it resembles a chicken drumstick with its tall, thin stems and egg-shaped flowers that start off green and mature to pink then red-purple. The beauty of this ornamental relative of the onion, leek, garlic and chive family is that as well as creating architectural structure, it is also edible.

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Some species are grown for their foliage and starry flower heads, others for their pungent bulbs and foliage - onion, scallion or spring onion (Allium cepa), porrum group of leeks (A. ampeloprasum), chives (A. schoenoprasum) and garlic (A. sativum). David Glenn, who runs Lambley Nursery at Ascot in country Victoria, knows the decorative value of alliums and can't imagine a garden without them.

The 10 varieties of bulbs he carries are sold out by January, so people can plant them in March-April for late-spring and early summer flowering. Glenn grows them in his dry-climate garden with different salvias and between deciduous shrubs that have been pruned over winter. Glenn says alliums are useful plants and different varieties have different uses: '''Drumstick' is terrific in the garden because it's vertical all the way from the foliage to the stems and flowers, so they don't take up any horizontal space.'' The larger varieties such as the giganteums finish flowering by Christmas but they can be a problem in the garden as they want to ''rot off'' in the Australian summer, he says.

Author and gardener Jody Rigby cites the ornamental allium as one of her 150 indestructible plants, not just for the insect-repelling scent they exude (the one that makes us cry when we cut up onions) but for their globe-shaped flower heads and strappy blue-green foliage, which add height and beauty to a garden bed. Rigby says the sulphur aroma also deters animals that like to scratch around in the garden.

A genus of plants belonging to the Alliaceae family, there are more than 700 species within the group, making it one of the largest in the plant world. Most come from the dry areas of the northern hemisphere, which is why they have a reputation for being tough.

You can order them online from Lambley Nursery (lambley.com.au), Diggers Seeds (diggers.com.au) and Tesselaar (tesselaar.net.au).

But whatever you do, order them in plenty of time so you don't miss out either on the bulbs or a spring-summer floral extravaganza.

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