nectaroscordum: the curious bulb that ties a bed together
CALL IT WHAT YOU LIKE, but plant it. Whether labeled as Nectaroscordum siculum or Allium siculum, it’s a wonderful oddball of a flowering bulb that always elicits inquiries from visitors at my June garden events, and for good reason—though some of its assets are not as obvious as its lovely dangling mauve and green bells.
Nectar-garlic (according to “The Names of Plants” fourth edition, that’s what Nectaroscordum means) is animal-proof, since nobody messes with onion relatives, really. It is long-lasting, perennializing in the garden and even self-sowing. If you don’t want more, simply pull the slender, onion-like seedlings, or better yet, deadhead the parent plants before seed is set. It is hardy in Zone 5-8 or even warmer.
I planted my first bulbs more than 20 years ago, and they just get better. Nectaroscordum is good-looking even after the blooms are done, forming a tan-colored seedpod that turns upward where each waxy bell once dangled. It’s a great cut flower (and some people even like the dry form for that use).
Bees love it (evidence in the photo up top). Hummingbirds are also inclined to investigate on occasion. They’re curious, apparently—and that’s a good word for nectar-garlic: curious.
First come elongated, papery-covered buds (above). Those odd-colored bells on 30-inch-tall stems; the foliage that’s not flat but dimensional, twisted in a 3-D manner (a drooping leaf or two showing that characteristic, below). The seedpods that seem to shift position toward vertical as they mature.
It is one of those plants, owing to its flowers’ old-fashioned and subtle coloration in gray-greenish, cream and a pinkish or wine color, that seems to be able to knit together other plants you might not at first think would make a match.
I like it in a jumble with Rosa rubrifolia, blue hostas, the wine-colored foliage of Cotinus (such as the smokebush called ‘Grace’), blue-foliage sedums, dark-leaved Heuchera, and perennial geraniums (including G. macrorrhizum, with vivid pink flowers).
Plant it in the fall, but here’s a tip: Some bulb catalogs offer early shopping discounts, for orders placed before July, for instance.
a p.s. on the name thing
IN BOTANICAL Latin, the epithet siculus means Sicily, so at some point in its long-ago past, this was probably native there, among other places. Most references are a little vague, but “Eastern Mediterranean” is probably safe to say, if asked where it’s native to.
The vagueness may get back to the name thing—and because true N. siculum or A. siculum has a near-lookalike close cousin, A. bulgaricum (as in: from Bulgaria), with slightly different color in the flowers.
Some catalogs will list Allium or Nectaroscordum bulgaricum, not Allium siculum, which Pacific Bulb Society says is a different plant—further specifying that what we see in catalogs today are probably hybrids, not true species, anyhow.
“In cultivation it is reported that whatever distinction these two species have, they integrate readily, and most bulbs or plants offered for sale are hybrids between the two,” the society’s website says. John Bryan’s massive at 2002 bulb encyclopedia says “only N. siculum is at all common in gardens,” and that bulgaricum is actually a subspecies of it. Oy, vey.
Meaning: Who knows which I have, anyhow. It was sold to me as N. siculum, but call it what you like.