Steele: Very drought tolerant garden bulbs

Ornamental onions are excellent water-wise, deer-proof plants says Capital News gardening columnist Gwen Steele.

‘Ivory Queen’ Turkestan onion (Allium karataviense) has beautiful

The unseasonably hot weather this past week got me thinking about plants that really thrive with little or no extra water in these extreme conditions.

Many varieties of ornamental onions (alliums) are what have captured my attention.

They are very drought-tolerant bulbs that can be purchased at garden centres in the fall.

They do best in full sun and well-drained soil.

They’re deer-proof and great for attracting pollinators.

Many of the taller varieties are in bloom right now – mostly in purple shades.

Allium ‘Giganteum’ has eight inch globes of flowers atop four foot stems.

It, and Allium ‘Globemaster’ (ten inch globes on three foot stems), look best if planted to grow up through a shrub, perennial or ornamental grass.

This is because most allium foliage is dying down by the time the plants flower.

Having large, striking, purple balls of bloom standing above a mass of ornamental grasses or the foliage of a shrub that is not currently in bloom, adds an element of surprise in the garden.

Allium christophii (Star of Persia) forms a very large, loose ball on 14-inch stems.

These make incredible dried flower seed heads. I have some from my old nursery garden that survived a move and have been on display in my living room for fifteen years.

Some alliums are vigorous self-seeders – a bonus if you are filling a large area or creating an informal garden. However in a normal garden setting they can get out of hand.

Ones that come to mind are:

Allium moly – 10 inches tall with bright yellow flowers

Allium sphaerocephalon (drumstick allium) – two feet tall with two inch, compact, deep purple heads

Allium ostrowskianum – 10 inches tall with two inch, loose pink flower clusters.

The allium everyone is most familiar with is chives (Allium schoenoprasum). The edible flowers open in May. If allowed to bloom, the leaves tend to die off a bit and be messy.

I prefer garlic chives. They have a wider flat leaf with a slightly garlic flavour. Foliage stays robust through to fall.

These are the latest blooming alliums, having a lovely flattish head of tiny white flowers – a magnet for late season pollinators.

If you don’t want baby chive plants everywhere, it’s best to deadhead them before they go to seed.

Another decorative allium that’s edible is our local native nodding onion (Allium cernuum). These are just coming into bloom in the native plant garden at the unH2O Xeriscape Garden. They also self-seed readily.

Of course we all eat onions, leeks and garlic that are also in the genus Allium.


The Lake Country Garden Tour is being held this Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.  For more information online check out

The Kelowna Flower Power Garden Tour is Saturday, June 18.  For more information online on that event see

Both events have nine gardens and art displays in the gardens.

Gwen Steele is executive director of the non-profit Okanagan Xeriscape Association. Learn more about Gardening with Nature and plants for the Okanagan at


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