Dear Readers, I planted this bulb in a pot last autumn, and promptly forgot what it was. When all the other bulbs were finished it was still in bud, the flower wrapped in a fine tissue that gradually came to resemble cellophane. Who would have thought that all those blooms could be wrapped up in so small a package? Nature is great at compaction, for sure.
Sicilian honey garlic (or Mediterranean bells or Sicilian honey lily) is a member of the onion family, and comes originally from the area around the Black Sea, and from Italy. It grows there as a woodland plant, and indeed I have one lone Sicilian honey garlic popping up under my whitebeam, which indicates that I have been even more forgetful than I thought. Apparently when cut it has a ‘penetrating skunky odour’ so we won’t do that, but will leave it instead for the bumblebees, who seem to be the only bees with the intelligence to work out how to negotiate the flowers. How they love it, though! They fly in from all directions, and yesterday one actually flew into the back of my head in her haste to get to the nectar, which was quite a shock for both of us.
The flowers are extraordinary but it’s all a bit of a mess at the bottom of the plant, where the leaves are even more untidy than they usually are on bulbs (Wikipedia describes them as ‘unusual twisted foliage’, so maybe I just need to adjust my perceptions). The flowers start by dangling downwards, but apparently turn to face upwards as they become seedheads. I shall make a point of taking photos daily from now on to see the whole process, otherwise I’ll only notice that things have changed when it’s too late.
As you might expect from an onion, Sicilian honey garlic has been used as an edible ingredient, particularly in Bulgaria, where the leaves of the wild plant (known there as samardala) turn up in spice mixes and salts. Indeed, you can buy some samardala salt for a very reasonable 1.41 GBP from the Bulgarian Spices website, and it’s recommended as a seasoning for egg sandwiches.
However, in a most splendid piece of research for the publication ‘Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution’, it appears that people in Bulgaria use samardala mostly with grilled, roasted or boiled meat. I never cease to be amazed at the sum of human knowledge.
Like all onions, Sicilian honey garlic contains ‘lachrymatory agents’ – in other words, chemicals that make you cry. I find that my response to cutting up alliums varies greatly according to the onion in question, and that, personally, it’s the little ones that are always the worst. I seem to have built up considerable tolerance over the years, but my husband only has to step into the kitchen when I’m frying up some shallots to start to weep (not as a direct consequence of my cooking skills, I should add). I’ve heard all of the supposed remedies – run your onion under water, wear a snorkel (really!) but my best advice is to use the sharpest knife you have and watch your fingers. Apparently damaging the onion cells causes them to release a chemical that converts to sulfenic acid on contact with the air, irritating the eyes. This chemical is protective for the plant, which might explain why many mammals and some invertebrates avoid garlic and onion-flavoured plants. Some gardeners recommend Sicilian honey garlic for woodland areas both because it is very shade tolerant, but also because (apparently) deer don’t eat it.
Now, I might be impressed by the bumblebees visiting my plant, but in North America you can sometimes see even more exciting visitors. Hummingbirds always know where the strongest, most plentiful nectar is.
Now, as you might expect nobody appears to have written a sonnet to this wonderful plant, but Denise Levertov, one of my favourite poets, did compose one on Alliums. I think she’s referring to the commoner purple one with its globe-shaped flowers, but this is also about the bees, and their relationship with all things oniony. I especially like the last two lines.In Praise of Allium by Denise Levertov No one celebrates the allium. The way each purposeful stem ends in a globe, a domed umbel, makes people think, ‘Drumsticks,’ and that’s that. Besides, it’s related to the onion. Is that any reason for disregard? The flowers – look – are bouquets of miniature florets, each with six elfin pointed petals and some narrower ones my eyes aren’t sharp enough to count, and three stamens about the size of a long eyelash. Every root sends up a sheaf of sturdy ridged stems, bounty to fill your embrace. The bees care for the allium, if you don’t – hear them now, doing their research, humming the arias of a honey opera, Allium it’s called, gold fur voluptuously brushing that dreamy mauve.
Photo One from https://www.bulgarianspices.com/product/samardala/
Photo by Tony Spencer from https://www.inthehills.ca/2021/03/piet-oudolf-reimagined/