Garlic honey (Allium siculum) flowers. Photo: ellishollow.remarc.com
One of my favorite bulbs is honey garlic (Allium siculum), better known under its former botanical name, Nectaroscordum siculum and also sold as just nectaroscordum. You may also see it listed as N. bulgaricum, but recent DNA studies show N. siculum and N. bulgaricum to be essentially the same plant. And the studies also reveal that they both belong in the genus Allium, along with garlic, onion, leeks and a host of ornamental species. The former genus Nectaroscordum has been absorbed into the genus Allium as a subsection, with the new name being Allium siculum. Oddly, Allium is actually the name used when it was first described nearly two centuries ago!
What I like most about this plant is its staying power. I planted 10 bulbs 25 years ago. They’re still there. In fact, there are more now, as not only does it divide at the base over time, it also self-sows to a certain degree if you don’t remove the faded flowers. The important thing is that I can count on its bloom year after year in late spring or early summer, May to mid-June in most climates, shortly after the main spring bulb show has ended.
Honey garlic is a plant of “subtle beauty.” The waxy blooms are drooping bells borne at the tip of thin pedicels atop solid 30 to 40 inch (80-100 cm) stems. They’re greenish to cream with a muddy purple stripe on the outside. Inside, which you’ll only see if you stick your head under the flower and look up (or if you actually believe the doctored photos seen on some bulb packages, where the flowers have been conveniently turned on their sides), the colors are much clearer: creamy white with a broad purple stripe. Still, they’re curious enough to be interesting and when they’re grown in public gardens, you’ll notice that people often stop and look at them.
The flowers are borne in a narrow, pointed, papery sheath that falls off at maturity. The pedicels arc downwards during flowering, then rise again after bloom as they produce seed capsules.
The foliage is quite unique too: long and lanceolate, growing in a cluster from the ground, the blue-gray leaves are triangular in cross-section and twist as they grow. There really isn’t any other plant like it!
Another nice thing about honey garlic is that nothing seems to eat it. Deer and rabbits avoid it and squirrels don’t even dig up their bulbs. I’ve never seen insect damage.
This is probably due to the very intense onionlike odor given off by damaged leaves. If you think chopping onions makes you cry, try mincing up honey garlic bulbs! Or rather, don’t: just take my word for it! In spite of that, honey garlic is used as a culinary herb in some countries.
That doesn’t stop bees from visiting, though: they seem to love the delightfully scented flowers! In fact, the former botanical name, Nectaroscordum, means “garlic that produces nectar.” And given the common name, honey garlic, I’m assuming that, in their native Mediterranean region, they are or have been used as a bee plant.
The bulb is also edible and used in cooking in some countries, as are the leaves. But you probably need to wear goggles as you prepare them!
Honey garlic also makes an excellent cut flower. Any odor from the freshly cut stem is eliminated as soon as it is plunged in cool water. And the flowers themselves have an attractive, sweet scent.
A Snap to Grow!
Bulbs are available in fall and are not hard to find: even my local garden center carries them! If not, all sorts of mail order sources offer them.
Plant the bulbs about 4 inches (10 cm) deep in well-drained soil of any quality, in sun or partial shade. The bulbs seem to thrive in climates both warm and cold, from hardiness zones 4 to 10. Essentially, they require no care at all, except maybe watering if you grow them in a desert.
Honey garlic: don’t let the change in names confuse you, the plant is a charmer!