Get a Jump on Spring with Wild Onions and False Garlic

By William Scheick, Contributing Editor

In open fields and some distressed lawns, two small native bulb species signal the approach of spring every March: wild onions (Allium spp.) and false garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve).

Their miniature flowers might generally be overlooked, particularly in the eventual welter of show-stealing larger wildflowers. But I never undervalue these little “stars,” as gorgeous as they are resilient.

Grown for their own sake in rock gardens or in containers, they take care of themselves and sparkle like little jewels. As a bonus, their petite starry blooms sequence rather than appear all at once, making them welcome company for weeks.

Wild onions

Drummond wild onion | Vego Garden
When acidity levels recede in aging blooms of Drummond onion (above), their deep floral lavender color fades to pale white

At least 14 species of wild Allium, some with divergent varieties, populate the Lone Star state. The demure Drummond (A. drummondii) and the assertive Canada onion or wild garlic (A. canadense) seem to outnumber the other wild alliums in Texas.

Left alone, such onion perennials - some are biennials - radiate outwardly in a roughly circular pattern as they reproductively claim new habitat. Although mine have never shown a strong propensity for taking over terrain, I prefer to maintain wild onions in their own containers set nearby my much less dominant mini-tulips (TG, March-April 2010), iris kin (TG, Sept.-Oct. 2007) and rain lilies (TG, July-August 2006).

If I were to plant these native and naturalized miniature bulbs together in the ground, I would first sink a deep barrier to keep the always ready-to-divide bulbs of wild onion confined to their side only. Otherwise these pretty bullies would eventually occupy more and more of the garden bed.

An in-ground divider might not be enough, however. Besides expanding by bulb offsets, wild onions produce post-bloom capsules with glossy black seed. This seed varies in viability based on species. For insurance against unwanted alliums, the seed capsules could be hand-removed before they rupture.

In a particularly effective approach to reproduction, various wild onions (notably the Canada allium) sometimes produce aerial bulbils (bulblets) instead of flower parts. This is a common amaryllis family trait, particularly whenever these bulbs lack sufficient sunlight to foster adequate flowering.

Bulbils are buds formed in leaf axils or (as in the example of wild onions) at floral points (inflorescences). Once these bulbils detach, they fall to the ground, set roots and potentially become a new plant.

Depending on soil composition, wild-onion bulbs will go deep or remain close to the surface. In my Oak Hill setting of rock and sandy grit, these bulbs situate themselves three or less inches below the soil surface, where I fairly effortlessly extract them with a sturdy trowel.

Elsewhere in better dirt I have seen them ensconced much farther down, occasionally as deep as the rain-lily bulbs in my neighborhood. Whether near or far from the soil surface, wild-onion bulbs (like rain lilies) exhibit tremendous durability against drought - one reason they long ago piqued my appreciation.

Allium flower-stalk height depends on species genetics and also on soil, especially soil’s capacity to retain moisture. In nutrient-poor, stony dirt such as mine in Oak Hill, which dries extraordinarily rapidly, wild-onion flower stalks remain short, often less than a foot. Each of these hollow and branchless stalks support a single cluster of showy flowers known as an umbel - a structure looking like dollhouse-sized, down-side-up chandeliers.

The tepals of these allium flowers are neither sepals nor petals, but still another version of modified leaves. Tepal hues vary by wild onion species and variety, ranging from shades of white, pink, lavender, purple and (for A. coryi in West Texas) yellow. A dark nectar guide graces each tepal from tip to base, providing an ultraviolet-lit landing strip for bees.

As they fade, wild onion flowers lose their charm. When acidity levels recede in the aging blooms of my Drummond onions, their deep floral lavender color fades to an unappealing pale white, then to sorry-looking rusty white.

Unless you prefer your patch to spread, the spent blooms could be deadheaded for tidiness and also to conserve carbohydrates to promote a possible second round of blossoms during autumn in rain-blessed environments.

Left unclipped, the umbels eventually form tiny green spheres, some of which fill up with glossy black kernels about the size of culinary poppy seeds. This seed, dispersed when the capsules rupture, supplements the ability of wild onion to spread out territorially by forming bulbils. However, wild-onion seed varies in viability based on species, with (in my experience) the Drummond species apparently much less seed-flourishing than the Canada species.

Wild onions smell like onions, even if all you test-sniff is a single pinched-off leaf blade. An insulating layer of fibrous tissue (reticula) protectively covers the bulbs of both species, although it might seem less visually obvious along the whitish exterior of the Drummond bulbs. Both the Drummond and Canada bulbs can be consumed in moderation. While they have been known to be a little stringy, both taste sweetish when eaten raw.

Fresh wild-onion leaves and flowers add zest to salads, too. On the other hand, cows, horses and particularly cats remain vulnerable to N-propyl disulfide, found in all onions. My grass-eating huskies never mistakenly nibble on wild-onion foliage, no matter how temptingly lush.

False garlic

False garlic | Vego Garden

In sunlight, false-garlic flowers become brilliant stars (during hot afternoons) also emit a pleasant faint perfume reminiscent of dianthus.

In reports about Texas native onions, warnings abound about possibly mistaking false garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve) as a wild allium.

This pervasive resident of Texas prairies, pastures and open fields mimics the vegetative appearance of wild onions. It, too, has a small, delicious-looking bulb. However, as a pinched-off leaf blade of this perennial quickly reveals, false garlic lacks the distinctive onion smell.

No need exists to test further, but skeptics could also take one quick lick on a sliced false-garlic bulb to confirm the presence of only an unpleasant bitterness instead of the anticipated alliaceous flavor. Not a member of the allium clan, false garlic remains only an amaryllis-family cousin of wild onions, at least according to some botanists.

Beyond being negatively tagged as false garlic, this native plant has also come to be known as “crow poison.”

I have always wondered about the accuracy of this moniker, especially since crows have again and again been experimentally shown to be extremely intelligent, apparently more so than any other bird and probably most mammals.

My female husky, whose impenetrable mind I do not pretend to fathom, pays close attention to crows in an untypical, non-predatory manner, as if acknowledging these corvids as her respected equals in knowing what’s what in nature. Even if this bushy dog “tail” proves nothing, I still cannot help but wonder: can field, test-smart crows fatally lose their minds over false garlic just as, say, some kitties flip out over catnip?

Retired biologist Emma Nan Hampton has wondered, too. Unfortunately, she had no luck unearthing the history behind the crow-poison label attached to false garlic and another plant.

My own research turned up two other plants historically referred to as crow poison: the Floridian native Osceola’s plume (Zigadenus densus) and Indian poke (Veratrum viride).

Once known as American hellebore, Indian poke is very poisonous, although some Native Americans used it medicinally and ceremonially. An 1894 article in Harper’s Young People recalled how “early settlers scattered corn steeped in a decoction of [this false] hellebore over their fields to poison crows,” a practice pioneer farmers possibly learned from Native Americans. Even brainy crows, I suppose, might fall for this potentially lethal ruse.

An increasing number of online commentaries - repeating an error made by an Ozark-wildflower enthusiast - now claim that false garlic was the crow poison once used in cornfields. Actually, it was false hellebore. So, then, is false garlic non-threatening?

After searching through a wide range of books on North American poisonous plants, including studies on toxicity in livestock, Hampton found no scientific evidence supporting the frequently reiterated claim about the danger of false garlic.

Biologists Scott Fleenor and Stephen Taber went a step further when they declared, “it is not apparently poisonous.” This does not mean, of course, that this horrible-tasting bulb would be edible. It could cause stomach or intestinal discomfort, an outcome as well after consuming too many wild onions.

I have wandered through this little detour on the alleged toxicity of false garlic to neutralize any fear of this durable and adorable native of the South.

Along with wild onions, false garlic puts on a charming miniaturized show well before spring officially arrives, continues blooming during spring and later usually gives a modest repeat performance during autumn. When a decent rainfall occurs in late August or early September, my false garlic flowers appear before the first official day of autumn.

The long-lasting umbels of false-garlic blooms come in shades of white with intense yellow throats. In the Laredo area, Southern bulb expert Thad Howard found an apparently rare false-garlic variety with lavender tepals (var. lilacinum).

Although false garlic produces fewer flowers than wild onions, these blooms are larger, about 1-inch wide. And like the flowers of my lady tulips, blue-eyed grass and rain lilies, false-garlic blooms close overnight and during overcast or rainy days.

When closed, the whorled tepals of false garlic reveal a prominent green or reddish/ purplish-brown stripe (mid-vein) ornamenting their undersides, which adds to their visual appeal. In sunlight, these little-candlestick whorls open to become brilliant stars that, during hot afternoons, also emit a pleasant faint perfume reminiscent of dianthus.

False-garlic floral stalks range in size, up to a foot high. Those grown in my Oak Hill poor soil remain shorter, likewise true for my local wild onions.

The spring flowering cycle of false garlic lasts about a month because this plant blooms sequentially rather than all at once. Some flowers open while other stalks remain in bud stage or still others carry seed capsules.

Capable of basil bulb offsets, false garlic reproduces primarily by pollination and self-pollination, resulting in capsules looking like small, shiny green spheres. Each of these globes shows a clam-like (bivalve) seam, which will split into two halves to release glossy, black, grain-like seeds.

Wind, water and insects readily distribute these tiny, hard seeds, which considerably outnumber the quantity produced by my Drummond onions. False-garlic seed seems to disperse in a more random and far-flung pattern than the roughly circular outreach of wild-onion kernels. Nevertheless, it apparently - in my experience - spreads more slowly than the Canada wild onion and, in fact, is presently considered to be rare in Indiana and endangered in Ohio.

Enjoying the beauty of false garlic and wild onions requires no outlay of money.

Just collect these freebie bulbs if they show up in your lawn or, perhaps, volunteer to scoop up those that your neighbors would be glad to see removed from their lawns. These undervalued-Texas jewels will prove their worth again and again every year well before the official arrival of spring.



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