This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Reticulation irregular, sub quadrate, the cell outline minutely very sinuous; scape eight inches high, rather stout; leaves narrow-linear; umbel many-flowered, the spreading pedicels six lines long; sepals more or less deep rose-color, three to four lines long, acute, erect-spreading, exceeding the stamens. (Watson's Botany of the Geological Exploration of the fortieth parallel, under Clarence King.)
THEN the reader who may not be well acquainted with botanical classification understands that the onion is an Allium, and that Allium is a genus belonging to the great order of Liliaceca, or the Lilies, he will perhaps be startled by the association. Oftentimes appearances so favor classification, that the popular mind can scarcely err in its impressions. It would unite what the botanists would join all in one family. But there are some so closely related, that botanists can hardly find any reasons for separating what the average observer would never bring together; and this case of Allium among the Lilies is one of these. And yet popular resemblances have to be respected to a certain extent even in botany, and thus such plants as the Tulip and the Lily, though held under the Liliaceous order, are placed in a separate subdivision from that in which the onion is held. The former is known as the Tulipa section, while the latter is in the Scilla or squills, and yet when botanical science looks for some great dividing line between what in appearance is so distinct, little more can be found than this, that while in the Tulipaan section the anthers fall from the filaments on a light touch, in the squills they are so firmly fastened, that all parts of the stamen fade away together. The Liliacea constitute one of the largest orders in the vegetable kingdom. It is divided into numerous subdivisions besides the two named, but the Scilla to which the Allium belongs constitute one of the largest divisions, and though they have few, if any, that can compare in gorgeous beauty with the Tulipa or true Lilies, they have a peculiar beauty of their own, which gives them an interest by no means inferior in many respects to that of their gayer neighbors.
Many of the Alliums are only known for their culinary uses. This is the case with the onion, leek, shallot, and similar plants, all belonging to this genus; but many of them are very ornamental, and are much sought for by cultivators expressly for their beauty. Some of them have been known from great antiquity, and the name is found both in Virgil and Pliny.
Milne, who wrote soon after the time of Linnaeus, tells us that the name Allium, as used by these old Roman writers, was borrowed by them from the Greek "allo, to shun or to avoid, from its disagreeable smell which is generally avoided;" but modern writers follow Theis, who says it is "derived from the Celtic all, which signifies acrid or burning," as some of the roots are.
As is the case with so many of the plants known to the ancients, one of the species, Allium Moly, gained an entrance into the imaginative poetry of the times. This Moly was said to have been an Arcadian of obscure birth, but a veritable natural genius, and especially gifted with the power to cure people of witchcraft. Mercury found him out, and set much store by his knowledge. He cured immense numbers, and finally dying mourned by the people, at their urgent request Mercury turned him into this flower, so that in this condition at least he might live as long as the world endured. Botanically the name is credited to Linnaeus as adopted from Tournefort, who preceded him in authoritative botanical literature; but the name in connection with these plants was in use by Bauhin a hundred years before, and probably by others still prior to his time. The number of species, large as it is, is continually being increased, and the present is one of the most recent discoveries. It was named Allium Palmeri by Mr. Watson, after Dr. Palmer, of Davenport, Iowa, who is at the present time one of the most zealous investigators of the flora of the little known portions of the United States, and who collected the specimens in southern Utah in 1870, from which the species was subsequently described and named by Mr. Watson in the work cited at the head of our chapter. It was again collected by Dr. C. C. Parry in the high mountains east of Cedar City, in southern Utah, flowering then in July, 1874. Mr. Watson remarks in describing it, that it had probably been seen before by other explorers, notably by Dr. Newberry, near Fort Defiance. Our drawing was made from roots collected by Dr. Palmer, and flowering in the collection of the Arnold arboretum under Mr. Jackson Dawson's care. It has also flowered in the garden of the writer, at Germantown, Philadelphia, from roots kindly sent by Mr. John Reading, of Salt Lake City. It seems to thrive very well in the open ground here under cultivation, and is a very ornamental hardy plant. As a type of beauty it would hardly occupy a high place, for the scape is too short to proportion well with the leaves; but still, as a lady critic remarked, "it is too pretty to be an onion." Much of its attractiveness is of course due to its rosy color, but as will be seen by the ground-plan (Fig. 2.), there is a great deal in the harmonious proportions of the lines in the various parts of the flower, that will commend it to those looking for natural models in ornamental designs.
Botanically there is much to interest the student in a special examination of this plant. In the description it will be noted that Mr. Watson says, the "cell outline is minutely very sinuous." This refers to a discovery by Mr. Watson, that the outline of the cells when a portion of the leaf is held up to the light, or examined with a lens, is seen to vary much in the outline, and that this variation is characteristic in the different species. He gives drawings of the outlines of several in the work from which the botanical description is taken, and the outline of this one is minutely sinuous or "snaky," while those of other species are very deeply lobed.
Another botanical feature of interest relates to the manner in which the new bulb is formed. In many species of the onion family the main bulb seems to divide, and the new ones for next year seem to be made up from these sections of the old one of the previous year. This is owing generally to the fact that the buds come up from between the scaly coatings which form the bulb. In the case of Allium Palmeri the new buds are formed from the very base and outside of the coatings of the old bulb, and these push out several inches horizontally from the parent, which probably dies after its flowering work has been fully perfected.
Its central home is probably southern Utah, but exactly how far it spreads has not yet been fully made known.
1. Complete plant in flower.
2. Ground-plan or full-face view of a single flower.
3. New bulb being formed for the next year.