Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today


NEW Trips to Take!

Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.


NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.


New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.


Plant Profiles

Variegated Society Garlic



Bright foliage, topped the whole season with clusters of starry lavender flowers: These are just the showy talents of society garlic.  The roots of this onion (and amaryllis) relative prefer to be in saturated mud.  Yup, this is an aquatic onion.  When I grew it like a normal onion—in good but well-drained soil—the foliage scorched.  This season, the pot sits in a deep saucer of water that I top up every other day.  The colony has never been more exuberant.


The lavender flowers are borne from Spring through Fall.  Although lavender isn't as easy to combine with hot-weather colors as, say, yellow or white, for six months of non-stop bloom, I'll work around it:  The colony is a star in the grassy alley that runs between the pink borders.




Next year, I'll add a pot of white-flowered society garlic.  The leaves don't have the sensational variegation, but the flowers will go with everything—month after month after month. 



Here's how to grow this high-performance perennial:

Latin Name

Tulbaghia violacea 'Variegata'

Common Name

Variegated society garlic, variegated pink amaryllis


Amaryllidaceae, the Amaryllis family.

What kind of plant is it?

Perennial bulb.


Zones 7 - 10.


Clumping and full, with growth dense enough to work as groundcover. 

Rate of Growth

Fast when happy.

Size in ten years

A clump two feet across and, in bloom, two feet high.


The foliage is narrow and grassy, similar to that of liriope.   Thanks to the leaves' pale background color and white edge, clumps are bright and lively.

Grown for

its foliage: The gray-green leaves, about a foot long and a half-inch wide, are edged with white.  From any distance, the foliage appears to be silver.  Even the mildest contact releases the scent of garlic; if there is a breeze, leaves brush against each other, releasing the garlic whiff on their own.


its form: The leaves arise from tightly-grouped rhizomes that form slowly-expanding clumps.


its flowers: The starry lavender flowers are an inch wide.  They bear six petals.  The flowers are born in clusters of up to twenty, and are held jauntily above the foliage on leafless stems. 


its durability: Established clumps can withstand severe drought at any time of year, and will revive when moister circumstances return.  They soon look shabby when drought-stressed; Tulbaghia tolerates dryness but looks best with plenty of water.


its imperviousness to browsers:  As is (usually; your deer may be more sophisticated than mine) typical for plants whose foliage has a pungent and readily-released fragrance, society garlic isn't bothered by deer, rabbits, or groundhogs.


its flexibility:  Tulbaghia violacea is unusual in its family, whose species (think amaryllis, agapanthus, and onion) typically require good drainage, and are often happiest in quite dry circumstances.  Society garlic combines that tolerance of drought with a true affection for water; clumps are never so vigorous as when growing aquatically.  See "Culture," and "How to handle it," below.

Flowering season

In profuse flower from early Spring through late Fall in mild climates, or when grown as a warm-weather container plant; occasional flowers year-round where the climate is frost-free.

Color combinations

The silvery foliage and clusters of lavender flowers both suggest partners that are celebrating pink, rose, purple, blue, white, and burgundy.  Pale yellow is also a possibility.    

Plant partners

Tulbaghia violacea 'Variegata' works best when its specific coloring, form, and cultural requirements are all respected.  In toto, they preclude as many possibilities as they create. 


The clumps' grassy texture is a ready foil to species with leaves that are either larger or rounded, whether hardy plants such as hardy clerodendron or sun-tolerant hostas; or tropicals such as philodendrons, aroids, palms, and sea grape; or aquatics such as water lilies, cannas, or lotus.  Or partner with plants whose leaves are frilly in any size, such as those of ferns, mosses, and particularly cut-leaved Japanese maples.  Plants whose leaves are long and narrow, regardless of their otherwise successful differences in size or coloring, would be repetitious; avoid partnering with grasses, phormium, iris, crinum, eucomis, or crocosmia and, if using Tulbaghia aquatically, with rushes or reeds.


Water-loving partners with large leaves include the darker forms of Colocasia, which, unlike their Alocasia cousins, also welcome being sited in mud.  Next season, I'll have a tub of Colocasia esculenta 'Black Coral' alongside my tub of Tulbaghia.  I have a galvanized tray four inches deep, twenty inches wide, and forty-eight long.  Someday, please, may I have the drive to pavé it with pots of Tulbaghia, surrounding a large glazed burgundy pot of 'Black Coral'.  And may I also have the dedication to top the tray with water twice a day.


Floral partners are best when their flowers are not also relatively small and starry, or not individually similar in scale to the overall Tulbaghia clusters.  Avoid impatiens and four o'clocks, despite their flowers' usual harmony with lavender, and their equally-long season of bloom.  The flowers of most pink-friendly daisies are too similar in size to the round clusters of Tulbaghia flowers, as would be those of roses.  The pink plumes of some grasses, such as Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum', would be marvelous with the flower clusters of Tulbaghia, but their grassy foliage (purple or not, in the case of 'Rubrum'), rules the pairing out.

Instead, explore terrestrial tropicals whose flowers come in a pink-friendly shade and are large and flamboyantly asymmetric, such as brugmansia, calla, canna, orchid, and ginger.  Or big-flowered aquatics such as water lily and lotus.  Or partners whose appeal is from foliage and texture, not flowers.

Where to use it in your garden

Although it is easy to establish en masse, Tulbaghia violacea 'Variegata' is almost too showy to be used as groundcover.  And the colonies are so regular in size, bright in foliage, and faithful in flowering that, unless you're careful to ensure precise geometry and prominent siting overall, they will appear disruptive or sloppy if planted individually.  Resist the urge to edge a bed with Tulbaghia if the shape of the bed isn't already strong, and its location isn't already focal.  


Instead, use society garlic to emphasize the purity of a layout that is already admirably geometric.  (I may never get to a tray-filled expanse of Tulbaghia; meanwhile, my half-submerged tub is centered at one end of a long alley of grass.)  Why not fill a pair of glazed cachepots with heavy rich garden soil, plant with as many starter pots of Tulbaghia as you can manage, and flank your sunniest door with them?  Just be sure to keep them watered.   


Sun and almost any soil.  In mild climates—Zone 8 and warmer—Tulbaghia also succeeds as a part-shade groundcover, in the high shade of palms, say, or clumping bamboos, although flowering is reduced.  Tulbaghia violacea is so drought-tolerant, pest-resistant, and floriferous, that the plant is omnipresent as a groundcover or accent plant everywhere it's hardy.  It would be difficult to visit Florida or California for a week without having seen thousands of clumps.  Its "Grows anywhere—even in highway medians!" durability camouflages society garlic's preference for the aquatic life. 


Vendors usually don't help get out the message of this species' unusual flexibility.  Pond-plant retailers are, understandably, interested in extolling any plant's eager performance in wet conditions, whereas regular nurseries are so focused on selling thousands of plants to the gigantic groundcover and container-plant market that they are loathe to mention  that same plant's equal comfort as a pond marginal.  This surprising diversity of preferred habitat would only confuse and possibly bring doubt into the minds of the shoppers—let alone encourage them to shop at the pond-plant specialists.  How could the same plant that thrives in rich mud also grow in reluctantly-irrigated lean soil in the parking-lot islands at malls?  Society garlic's cultural versatility is counter-intuitive, indeed. 

How to handle it

If siting terrestrially, ensure that plants receive enough water during the warm months so that older leaves don't brown.  Growth is so dense that there will be scores of such damaged older leaves among even just a few clumps, and it would be a garlic-infused nightmare to remove them one by one. 


Clumps will be less active in the cooler months.  If there are frosts, the normally-evergreen foliage will become semi-deciduous and shabby.  Cut back clumps to an inch or two before growth resumes in Spring. 


For the same reason, if rainfall is scant in the cooler months, clumps will become dormant, and foliage quality will suffer.  Cut all growth down to an inch or two before warmth and rain returns, so that clumps display only fresh new foliage.


Bring containered plants into shelter before frost, giving them all possible light but watering only sparingly.  In later Winter or early Spring, cut back all growth before resuming regular watering.  Divide pot-bound clumps, which will increase quickly in gratitude.  Set revived plants outside only after there's no risk of frost.

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

Tulbaghia violacea is at its most lush and floriferous when it never lacks for water.  Set containered plants in saucers that you keep full of water, or in deeper water as long as the crown of the colony remains above water.  Society garlic will also thrive in wet ground, even when sited marginally—at the edge of fresh water, in other words—as long as just its roots are in saturated soil.  Tulbaghia enjoys wet feet, but not full immersion.  Good drainage for the crown of the plant is important for overwintering in-ground where frosts are more than transitory: In Zone 7, in other words.


Its bright variegated foliage and self-reliant habits may tempt you to plant T. violacea 'Variegata' in contexts where, you'll later discover, its months of lavender flowers will create an eye-crossing clash.  Fortunately, once you see society garlic (in someone else's garden) mixed with scarlet geraniums, yellow-leaved sweet potatoes, or marigolds of any color, the horror will stay with you when you contemplate more suitable siting for Tulbaghia in your own.


T. violacea 'Silver Lace' is the same as 'Variegata'.  The variegation in 'Tricolor' includes pink in Spring, but is white by Summer; the flowers are lavender.  'Alba' has white flowers, but the foliage isn't variegated. 


T. violacea is the hardiest of the dozens of species of Tulbaghia.  The differences among most of them are not substantial enough to warrant having a Tulbaghia collection—unless, of course, small subtleties are what set your heart aflutter.  If the diversity among snowdrop cultivars and species seems big enough that you find yourself growing more than four or five, then you'll also be jazzed by the differences among Tulbaghia cultivars and species. 


The garlic scent of the foliage is typical, as is a contrasting sweet fragrance to the flowers.  Although most forms have flowers that are lavender-to-pink, or white, the petals of T. acutiloba are white on the outside and green on the inside.  The flowers of this species also sport a showy corona, which is a trumpet-like structure inside the ring of petals; the trumpet of daffodil flowers is the most well-known floral corona.  The corona of flowers of T. acutiloba is a very pleasantly contrasting shade I can only describe (with affection) as "warm cardboard."  The flowers of T. montana are similar. 


The white-flowered forms can combine with many more colors than the pink- and lavender-flowered forms,  but I'm not aware of any white-flowered forms that also have variegated foliage.  Even so, because T. violaceae flowers for months—longer than the entire frost-free season here in New England—a pot of T. violacea 'Alba' would be a hardworking pleasure.  To have such season-long floriferousness in a plant that is aquatic is especially welcome.  T. violacea is the only species I'm aware of that is marketed for aquatic siting, not just terrestrial.


On-line as well as at retailers.  Where T. violacea is reliably hardy, you can buy plants at the big boxes, too.


If growing in containers, by division at almost any time.  If growing in-ground where they are borderline hardy—in Zone 7—by division in Spring.  If growing in-ground where they are solidly hardy—Zone 8 and warmer—division at almost any time.

Native habitat

Tulbaghia violacea is native to South Africa.  In the mid-18th Century,

Ryk Tulbagh was a governor of the Cape of Good Hope Province. 

FacebookTwitterRSS Feed

Stay in touch!


Sign up for twice-monthly eNews, plus notification of new posts:


* indicates required