Thursday, April 9, 2020

Overlooked Native Dandy: the Circus Onion

One of the first wild things to bloom in lowland Western Colorado (aside from Lomatiums) is Allium macropetalum. I still I cannot think of it by any other name than what my friend Trina calls it.

We once dug handfuls of “Circus Onion” from some land to be developed on the north end of town that sits on clay barrens.  A humble little bulb- one of about 4 local desert species of Allium around here. 

(Like A. nevadense, which makes fat dense creampuffs and a single spiral leaf, or A. acuminatum,  which explores the color affinity to highlighter markers) Since then I’ve learned a bit more about this completely ignored native darling.

It grows like a champ in nasty unirrigated clay soil, or even nice garden soil. And multiplies. It leafs out in fall and winter, and blooms for a long period in early April, standing no more than 4” (10cm) tall. They vary from pure white to mostly rose, with most being a striped intermediate. Some are not fragrant, some smell like an outhouse.  But just a few individuals have a heavenly fragrance!  Making those distinctions with your face a few inches above the dusty earth and your hands on the ground is really... special.

We fell in love with it. It multiplies well from year to year and, just as in nature, makes a wonderful, non-competitive, non-aggressive understory bulb to appear before taller plants, showing up to bloom when their successors are barely emerging. They politely and thanklessly fill an empty niche of early native bulbs for the super super dry garden when it is too dry for Muscari, Scilla, Galanthus, species tulips, and the like. While Denver is usually moist enough for the above, it is too dry in or unwatered cactus gardens of the Great Basin. Some of us don’t like to water our cactus gardens because that just means weeding in between all those spines. 

Knowing we’d not have the windfall of just digging up patches of bulbs in future, I tried to propagate them in pots from seed and bulb division.  They hated it. That is to say, they almost died out entirely, so I frantically planted them in the ground to save them. They hated pots. This happens with some truly wild natives- the best ones.  But what also happens is that genetics from a certain population will break the rule. That is why some wonderful natives you could never buy suddenly appear in the nursery one year.  And it turns out that an Allium I gathered in Las Cruces grew up nicely in a pot, bloomed this spring, smells like cat pee, and turns out to be Allium macropetalum- looks like it has a wide range across the mid southwestern US. 

The Las Cruces form of Allium macropetalum.

Most Alliums are very easy from seed- they need a few months of winter to wake the little seeds for spring germination and a couple years in a pot before being blooming size.  They sleep fine through the summer in their pots in the West, better than most bulbs that get too dry or fry or rot.  Mountain and alpine species are the easiest, and desert/steppe species can be a little trickier (or not)- but you don’t know until you try. Throwing the seed strait into your garden is even easier. Pests and grazers will usually avoid eating them. So I encourage any hikers and naturalists out there to look for their local Allium- they are usually secretive cherubs and harbingers of spring- and collect some seeds and welcome them home in your native garden.

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