Allium karataviense

It takes balls to turn heads. At least, that’s what I’m told. I think that I read it first in The Avant Gardener — that wonderful print newsletter. Apparently, orb-shaped flowers (or clusters of flowers) ring bells in popularity polls. That’s when I took a tally and noticed that my garden lacked balls, so I took immediate action. And sure enough, the community came down with a raging two thumbs up.

I try to keep a low profile in town, which isn’t hard when you’re not quite 5 feet tall and shy away from local politics. Every once in a while someone marches down the path to scare me up from behind the viburnum. But it usually has something to do with a plant that their dog ate (“I was just wondering if it’s poisonous, he gnawed it down a week ago Friday”) or advice (“My dogwood died. What should I do?”). My mulch always gets plenty of comment around town. But in general, the community concerns itself with exterior paint colors and reproduction light fixtures. As a rule, plants don’t register. That changed when I planted Allium karataviense.

I’m not sure who to credit with the Allium karataviense idea. I’m a confessed inspiration thief. But by some fluke, this eureka moment might have originated in my own convoluted brain. (If you did it first, I don’t want to hear about it.) Believe it or not, there is a portion of my front yard that was lawn. And to remedy that breach, I originally planned to lay a low-lying carpet of plants in lieu of the crabgrass that prevailed. I’ve since begun to add volume height-wise, but that came later. When a friend announced that he was ripping out his cache of Heuchera ‘Caramel’. I welcomed the whole herd with open arms and hatchback ajar.

I love sunset shades, I truly do. Plus, ‘Caramel’ can take the sun (more about that in a future blog). It was groovy, but it lacked a cutting edge. Simultaneously, I’d ordered too many bulbs of Allium karataviense. I always force them for late winter kicks indoors — and they work beautifully for that purpose. But I ran out of refrigerator space.

So I installed the excess allium between the heucheras. The accordion pleated blue foliage was a hit even before the flowers popped. And then came those mauve balls (mauve being highly superior to pink) that lingered half the summer. Even when they fade to brownish they look fairly wonderful. And the leaves don’t peter out like most alliums. They remain in great shape and color until July or later. There’s a white version, but I don’t really see the point — the mauve is part of the show.

And it was a show. Suddenly, I was the local hero. People stopped me at the dump. They cornered me beside the viburnum for reasons other than canine ingestion mishaps. It was thrilling. And I figure it all had to do with balls. I’m all for a happy neighborhood, so I ordered another few hundred Allium karataviense (no, I’m not running for public office in town). Plus I went big for Allium ‘Purple Sensation’, A. christophii and a whole lot of other balls to juggle as well. Last year was the unveiling and the audience went wild. So I added still more (I’m no fool). And we’ll see.

Fortunately, six months have elapsed since I spent day and night painfully doing deep knee bends, planting bulbs. And I’m pleased to report that — if anyone should want to pay me a compliment — I will again be able to stand and receive it.

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18 Responses to Allium karataviense

  1. Wow! That is a killer combination. I might just have to steal that idea…

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Please give it a whirl, it would make me so proud. Especially because I admire your work (and we’ve been Secret Admirers forever). I’m also trying the alliums in other combos this year — I’ll keep you posted.

  2. Lisa from PA says:

    I’ve always loved alliums, but usually planted the huge and tall variety Allium ‘Globemaster’ and last fall a handful of Allium ‘Sphaerocephalon’ or drumstick variety. Still tall enough to shout out from amongst my favorite tulip ‘Angelique’. I’m not quite the “dabbler” you are and not much of a risk taker. I’ve stolen my share of great ideas from others, so I know you will be pleased that I am borrowing this planting pair for an idea for a new border. I’m also telling my garden club~ the handful of plant addicts I gravitate toward will thank you immensely, I’m sure! Thanks, Tovah!

    • Tovah Martin says:

      There you go = it sounds like I’m starting a fad, Lisa. I’m going to have to do a future post on an Allium sphaerocephalon combo that I saw in Nova Scotia. It was incredibly gorgeous (and I’ve got a photo). It’s A. sphaerocephalon with a silver artemisia. I know = it sounds a little shaky. But wait ’til you see it! I’m lecturing in Des Moines this week and posting this from the Midwest, but I’ll get it up on the blog when I get home. Meanwhile, I got an email from Ed Bowen = he’s got Geum ‘Bell Bank’ available again this year and he’ll be updating his on-line catalog soon.

  3. Cathy says:


    I discovered you through GGW but I do believe our meeting was pre-ordained. We were supposed to go to the Boston Flower Show on 3/19/11 but because of a death in the family, we had to postpone our visit to Sunday so we missed your terrarium lecture, which I very much wanted to attend. I have a lovely mini Victorian conservatory that I am trying (not very successfully) to design and plant. I’ve read (and re-read) your terrarium posts and will give it a whirl again this weekend! I wish I’d had the courage to get some plants at the flower show.

    So here I am and I have to say, I LOVE your blog, your plant artistry, your photography, and especially you’re writing style. I’m not sure I’d ever have enough chutzpah to start off a blog post announcing to the world that I share…. well, you know… certain parts of the male anatomy…. but I adore the combination of balls and bronze. I have the same heuchera (and in full sun as well) but have struggled to find the perfect garden mate for it. I tried a short purple sage (okay, I was in the right color family… as an artist, I know my color wheel), butI’m not madly in love with the combination – the purple and the green are too dark. Your allium is light enough not to be overpowering. I am definitely stealing this idea!

    And no, I can not tell you the precise variety of sage I tried. My wonderful adopted son was assisting me with gardening chores a couple of years ago when we were getting ready for the annual Country Gardens tour. In an effort to be helpful, he thoughtfully pulled up and discarded every one of my plant tags and proudly told me that he had gone through and gotten all the “trash” out of all the beds for me. Worse, my garden diary, which had diagrams and plant lists, had been a casualty of massive flooding we’d had earlier that same spring. I am slowly recreating my plant lists, but many are (quite honestly) mere educated guesses.

    Anyway, I giggled my way through Mary Miltin (who also lives with me – that girl sure does get around!) and chortled through the paperwhites. We were given some at Chanukah and your posst confirmed my suspicions: the gift givers undoubtedly DO secretly hate me. I could never do justice to the description of the aroma the way you did but I managed to avoid it after a time by putting the pot in my husband’s office when the scent was a little more than I could bear. As they were winding down, he dragged a large oriental style carpet he has in the middle of the room to the dry cleaner, insisting that the dogs had peed on it. My guess is the carpet was as pristine going in as it was coming back. (Shhhhhh.)

    Your blog is better than therapy. Thanks for sharing your delightful sense of humor and amazing fund of knowledge! OK… I’m off to read (and snicker) some more!

    Cathy who lives only a short morning’s ride north of you in Northeastern MA

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Welcome aboard, Cathy. Sorry that I was slow to respond but I was lecturing in Des Moines and just got home. Loved your comment — keep ’em coming. I think we should all confess our paperwhite capers. I’m thinking about that salvia and I know just what you mean. They’re so dark even with a backdrop of orange. I tried ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ based on the plants at the High Line — it’s more of Wedgewood blue. But it just didn’t perform well for me last year. Sort of melted away…Anybody else have thoughts?

      • Cathy says:

        No apology needed – and I hope your lecture and trip went well. 🙂

        My heuchera is growing along a hedge of Munstead lavender and that should have been a clue to me that a lighter lavender would have been a better choice.

        This heuchera was an unexpected addition to this particular spot in the garden. I purchased it for a garden bed that we were making as a gift for a neighbor. At the same time, I purchased Platycodon “Sentimental Blue” to use as a ground cover near some large clumps of peonies.

        We’d hired some folks to help us build the neighbor’s garden. It was a surprise baby gift for the new mom that we had arranged with the new dad and we had one day to rip out sod and clay and build and plant the bed from literally, the ground up. Somehow, the two groups of plants were accidentally switched and I didn’t realize it until after the “gift” garden was finished. I have to admit, the balloon flower border was lovely there.

        I put the heuchera in one of my own beds until I could decide what to do with it. I planted it with some similarly colored false spirea that shouldn’t like the bright sun but loves the spot I’m trying to track down some of this allium to go with it….. my guess is that the allium is going to be the perfect garden mate for both.

        • Tovah Martin says:

          What a creative, thoughtful idea, Cathy — to put in a garden for a new mother! She must have been thrilled. And thank you also for introducing us to Platycodon ‘Sentimental Blue’ — so tell us, did it really work as a ground cover? My issue with platycodons is that they usually just jut up as a single spindly stem and don’t fill out, although they’re tough as nails. Your thoughts?

          • Cathy says:

            The baby gift garden was a fabulous hit, a huge surprise for the new mom, and four years later, the garden is now fully mature and thriving. We have found that great gardens make great neighbors. 😉

            It was quite the project. When we initially planned it, we anticipated dividing some of our own perennials and sharing a small amount of our spring loads of compost, mulch, and perhaps a bit of loam. It turned into a much larger production. In order to pull it off, we rounded up a crew of workers that we paid to help us. We had to lift sod, dig out clay, build the bed from the dirt up, and get everything planted, and we had one day to do it. And yes, we managed to get it done in one very long day. 😉

            As for the platycodon, it did a very nice job as a border but it failed as a ground cover. It was a good thought but in retrospect, not a realistic one. My experience with the taller, standard sized platycodons is exactly what you describe. “Sentimental Blue” is a dwarf variety with a compact, mounding conformation. Each plant spreads to a maximum of about 12 inches. They are very slow growing but rugged, hardy, and gorgeous when in bloom. At least this far north, the dwarf varieties bloom much earlier than the tall varieties.

            I had gotten fairly substantial plants in 6 inch pots and spaced them every 12 inches and although they are slower growing than most of our other perennials, they did filled in to create an attractive, dense border, although it took three years for them to fill out completely.

            I was so impressed with them, the following year I invested in more of the same “Sentimental Blue” as well as some dwarf white “Astra” to make a border along the driveway edge of one of our cottage gardens. Last spring, the border was stunning.

            This winter was particularly snowy here (almost 9 feet total here on the seacoast) and when the snow finally melted, I was dismayed to find that the plow chewed up almost the entire border. Since these sprout so late in the spring (long after everything else is leafed out) only time will tell if any of them at all survived.

          • Tovah Martin says:

            This is exactly the type of dialogue I envisioned when I got the idea for this blog, Cathy. I wanted other gardeners to share their experiences with plants — thank you for the ‘Sentimental Blue’ recommendations and warnings. Fill us in on the progress after the Big Bad Winter. Bet all is well. I have a border that runs right up to the road and it got massacred by the plows. But it’s slowly forgiving all the trespasses.

            And I’m thinking how lucky this little baby is to have a garden built in his/her honor. Talk about giving a child a legacy! And ain’t that always the way with garden projects? They start out innocently enough and balloon into major excavations. You were wise to hire help — but again, what a good friend!

  4. Julie Niccum says:

    Eleven years ago I moved into my little house. Later that spring I watched these gorgeous balls bloom in my yard. I was fascinated by them. Eleven years later I’m still fascinated by Allium. I’ve dug up some of the plants and replanted around the yard. Tovah, you given me inspiration to plant even more.

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Lucky you to inherit some alliums. Tell us — have they increased? In some friends’ gardens, they’ve mischievously married and all sorts of combinations are coming up. I’m hoping mine will do likewise. The more, the merrier.

  5. Pingback: Plant of the Week: Alliums (Ornamental Onions) | Stately Kitsch Plant of the Week: Alliums (Ornamental Onions) | For the modern older home owner.

  6. alliums says:

    I too heart the Allium karataviense. Planted it for the first time last fall and watched in awe this spring as those deep-sea leaves spread and the umbels stretched up and out.

    And I love those shades in general, too, though I’ve always referred to them as bruise-y. Another favorite in that bruise-y category is Rosa rubrifolia. Wow! Do you know it?

    • Tovah Martin says:

      And mine is perennializing beautifully, Dan. It’s the most talked-about plant in town. Funny you should mention Rosa rubrifolia. I came within a whisper of buying a plant of it yesterday. Do you happen to know if it succumbs to all the usual rose problems? Being a species, I hope not. And I assume that the canes don’t die back in winter — to give color then…Right?

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  8. Tovah:

    I am “wowwed”! I have been fond of and have used Allium karataviense for many years in my landscape designs and planting palettes. One of my favorite combinations of late has been to combine it with Geranium ‘Dark Reiter’ or Hechera ‘Mocha’.

    I loveyour use of it with Heuchera ‘Caramel’, too bad it’s not a fall bloomer…. the autumn impact would be stunning. ‘Caramel’ is a staple for us, glad for an additional way to see it in the landscape, very clever!

    • Tovah Martin says:

      Thank you so much, Laura. GREAT idea to add the geranium. I selected Heuchera ‘Caramel’ because it’s reputed to tolerate sun. Unfortunately, mine scorched this summer. My solution is to tuck in some Asclepias tuberosa next spring. They’re low-growing, sun-worshipping, pollinator-friendly, and they echo the orange vibe I’ve got going there. But I’m tempted to try your ‘Dark Reiter’ solution…

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