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.
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.
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.