Snowbell (Allium triquetrum)

This seems like a good time of year to post about snowbell (Allium triquetrum, also known as three cornered leek), one of the most useful plants in the forest garden in winter. A strange quirk of nature means that many of the best plants for the Scottish forest garden in the depths of winter come from the Mediterranean region. Native plants have almost all quite sensibly opted to lie dormant at this time of year, making for an abundance of roots but few leaf crops. Mediterranean plants are used to mild (but not entirely frost free) winters and punishing summers, so they have evolved to do most of their growing in winter, saving the summer months for flowering and seeding.

Of course, this means that many Mediterranean plants simply can’t cope with Scottish winters, but a surprising number can, including some familiar crops such as artichoke, wall rocket, king’s spear, red valerian and rosemary, all of which put on significant growth in winter. The general rule of thumb for Mediterranean plants is to give them a good, well-drained soil, since their biggest enemy is winter wet.

Of all these plants, snowbell is the most productive during winter in my garden, producing a significant amount of long, oniony leaves, adaptable enough to go in stir fries or salads, or to accompany leeks, kale, sea beet, radish leaves, Serbian bellflower, celery and wintercress in a welcome dose of ‘green‘. Many alliums start early and I expect wild garlic and chives to be producing before the end of February, but only snowbell grows really strongly in the darkest months around the solstice.

As with most species, locally adapted plants are a definite plus. I got my first plants from Cornwall, and they suffer noticeably in northern Scottish conditions. I then found plants growing locally, with many generations of adaptation to local conditions under their belt. The pictures below show the difference.

Cornish snowbell in winter
Scottish snowbell in winter

One risk with snowbell is that, as its name implies, it looks quite a lot like a white variety of bluebell or wild hyacinth (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), which is poisonous. Once you get your eye (and nose) in, there are many differences, including snowbell’s longer, softer, onion-scented leaves, differing arrangement of flowers and distinctive green lines down the centre of every petal, but it is worth being aware of the danger and, obviously, not to have bluebells in your forest garden.

silverbell flowers
Bluebells and snowbells side by side

As with all the articles on this site, this one is about using snowbell in a cultivated space. It is illegal in Scotland to plant any non-native species (including snowbell) in the wild or to allow it to escape from your garden to the wild, so consideration should be given to the potential for this before planting it, even in a garden. The snowbell in my garden has not been difficult to keep contained, but bear in mind that invasiveness varies according to local conditions and this may not be true for you in your country or part of the country. There is also another plant which is similar to and sometimes confused with snowbell. This is few-flowered leek or onion (Allium paradoxum). I would not recommend planting this even in a garden as it is extremely invasive thanks to the mass of bulbils that it produces in place of flowers.

6 thoughts on “Snowbell (Allium triquetrum)

  1. Trevor Petch

    Hi there, Allium triquetrum aka the three-cornered leek was added to Sched 14 of the 1981 Wildlife & Countryside Act in 2010. I’m pretty sure this makes it illegal to propagate or distribute it, or imply that you have it available for distribution – so best to make it clear that you havn’t…

    Reply
    1. Alan Post author

      I take it you mean Schedule 9, which lists the plants and animals that Section 14 of the Act applies to? This does not make it illegal to propagate or distribute it, but only to release it into the wild. In fact, it is an offence to release any plant or animal outside its native range into the wild in Scotland. My allotment is definitely not the wild! I advise against Allium paradoxum precisely because it is very difficult to stop it escaping from gardens but in my experience in the North East of Scotland this is not the case with Allium triquetrum.

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  2. Fi Darby

    I was excited (in Devon) to find my emerging wild garlic under the autumn leaf layer last week but I hadn’t heard of the snowbell. I will give it a try. I’ve been eating three cornered leek from the local copse since December. Tasty but bossy so, as you suggest, I don’t allow it in the garden.

    Reply
    1. Alan Post author

      Snowbell and three cornered leek are the same. Three cornered leek is just a translation of the Latin name (tri-quetrum = three-corners). I prefer snowbell as a bit more poetic! In Spain, where I’ve also seen it, it’s known as lágrimas de la virgen, or the Virgin Mary’s tears. I don’t really mind ‘bossy’ plants in my garden when they are as edible as snowbell.

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  3. Alexa

    Hi Alan, your article is confusing. As you say 3-cornered leek, Allium triquetrum, is invasive and should never been introduced to any space, cultivated or wild as it can spread so easily from bulblets. But then you talk of snowbell and 3-cornered leek being the same and speak of having snowbell, Allium triquetrum, in your allotment. If they are the same, then you contradict yourself?
    Avoid confusing people and certainly avlid encouraging further spread of Allium triquetrum, 3-cornered leek, in Scotland. It is a scurge down here in the Borders and is pushing out the more beneficial Wild Garlic in most areas. Please help tp protect our wild garlic and warn people.of the dangers of spreading 3-cornered leek and encourage the wild collection of this plant to limit its spread.

    Reply
    1. Alan Post author

      Allium triquetrum does not produce bulbils. You are thinking of Allium paradoxum, which is often confused with triquetrum. I have rewritten the article a little to emphasise that you should not plant A. triquetrum in the wild or anywhere where it is likely to spread to the wild. And as I said from the start, I don’t encourage planting A. paradoxum anywhere at all because it spreads so easily. I have also seen paradoxum displacing wild garlic up here in the North East.

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