With their striking spherical silhouette and multitude of shades, alliums are one of my favourite flowers to photograph. And just like tulips which preceed them, they only look their very best for a short time, often as brief as two weeks.
Unless it’s at the Chelsea Flower Show, judging the optimum time to shoot alliums can be a hit and miss affair. Too early and all you’ll see are the closed flower heads, too late and they’ve gone over. That said, alliums are one of the few flowers that look equally spectacular when they’re finished blooming as they do in their prime.
Arundel Castle’s big annual floral event is of course its fabulous Tulip Festival, held each April. Once the tulips have gone, in their place spring up alliums.
I shot the last Allium Extravaganza in May 2019 — the castle was closed to visitors throughout 2020 thanks to Covid — but it wasn’t until mid-June 2021, almost a full month later than in 2019, that I was back to shoot this year’s display. Like the tulips, unseasonal weather delayed blooming.
Head Gardener Martin Duncan told me that this year would feature some 20,000 alliums of which there were around 25 varieties, some of which wouldn’t be in bloom until July.
Unlike with tulips, Martin prefers planting alliums sparingly throughout the Earl’s Garden, primarily among low-growing herbaceous plants, which hide their leaves when they die back before the bloom appears.
Martin also weaves them more naturalistically within feathery grasses across the rest of the castle grounds. To retain visual interest for as long as possible, he chooses varieties with a broad palette of colours, heights, bloom times and flower forms.
In contrast with the visual impact of massed tulips with their riot of Spring colour, alliums produce a much more subtle display. It’s probably why they don’t promote the Allium Extravaganza in the same way they do the Tulip Festival.
When it comes to planting, compared with tulips, alliums require a defter hand. Those that know their onions will either frame them against contrasting shapes and colours or plant them so that their flowers appear to float above the foliage.
This is beautifully demonstrated in the Stumpery, with its gnarly upended stumps of oak, yew and sweet chestnut.
On this visit, it was without doubt the visual highlight of the internationally renowned Earl’s Garden. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen the Stumpery looking quite so picturesque. As I’ve said before, it deserves a much larger space.
One of the constant challenges for any garden that’s open to the public is finding ways of keeping it interesting for returning visitors.
These days I don’t think you can rely solely on the changing planting — what’s in season at any particular time — and I’d like to see the castle being more creative in what it does in terms of theming.
We live in an Instagram age and there always needs to be something new and striking, either to photograph or be photographed in front of.
Talking of new things, this visit was my first opportunity to take a walk around the recently opened Water Gardens. Created around three ancient ‘stew ponds’, for me, it was a little underwhelming. Personally, I think it’s too small and aside from a pair of thatched buildings, there’s just not enough to engage the eye.
Compared with the quirky wow factor of the Earl’s Garden, the Water Garden did not feel particularly unique and I struggled to find too many interesting compositions. That being said, I did enjoy seeing the beautiful waterlillies in such a naturalistic setting.
Behind the shot: All these images were taken handheld either with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 using the M Zuiko 1.8 75mm lens or with the iPhone 12. My challenge was not just to come away with a bunch of eye-catching images, but to try to not repeat what I did last time around. This time it was all about seeking interesting compositions, mainly those that featured alliums alongside other plants. It proved a smart move as I was not just looking for specimen alliums, but what was surrounding them. The orbs of the allium’s contrast well with the looser shapes of other plants, as does the purple palette against other coloured flowers or foliage. Also, when photographing alliums, my preference is to focus either on a single flower — ideally, one as perfect as possible — or find a group of them where the flowers overlap each other as this provides interesting depth. So which one’s my favourite shot? It had to be one from the Stumpery and for me the most visually pleasing was the three alliums against the blue hosta leaves. Shot in Arundel on 15 June 2021.
About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens. With no concerts or major events taking place during lockdown, Gary has turned his attention to creatively capturing the landscapes of West Sussex. On the writing side, he has also penned deep dives into some of his favourite songs beginning with Bryan Ferry’s ‘These Foolish Things’ ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and ‘All The Young Dudes’ by Mott the Hoople. Most recently he has written a biography of Robert Palmer. All these can be found here on Medium along with his reviews of gigs and events and interviews with musicians.