The Plant Native

Nodding Onion

Highlights

Nodding Onions are lovely native flowers with small purple pom-pom flowers that bloom in the middle of the summer. They are also deer-resistant and drought-tolerant. Because they are short (1-2 feet tall), Nodding Onions are perfect choices for borders and sunny pollinator gardens. Find tips and planting inspiration below.

Full Sun – Part Shade
1′-2′ tall
Flowers in the summer
Allium cernuum
Nodding Onion blooms look gorgeous AND attract pollinators

Dig Deeper

Explore the history, types, and where to plant native Nodding Onion

Table of Contents

This plant goes by the common name Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum), which is a lovely way to describe the way its flowers hang down gracefully in the summer. They are easy to plant and because they are perennials, will come back year after year after they’re planted once. In this article, we will explore the benefits of planting Nodding Onion, discuss the challenges you may encounter, and provide helpful tips for successfully cultivating this charming perennial.

Why is it called Nodding Onion?

A common name is a name for a plant given by the generations before us. As we’ve discussed in our quick overview of Latin plant naming, many native plants have several common names but plants only have one Latin name.

This plant’s common name—Nodding Onion—refers to both the way its blooms hang down in a graceful droop (you can almost imagine the bloom ‘nodding’ off to sleep) alongside the plant’s family tree. Nodding Onions’ roots are bulbs: dig them up and you’ll find a miniature onion-like round bulb beneath. This bulb root is also shared by other wild onions, including Wild Garlic. If you snap a piece of Nodding Onion stalk, you will smell the onion-y smell (it’s also why it’s sometimes called ‘Wild Onion.’) This plant’s bitter taste is what also makes it deer-resistant.

What are the benefits of Nodding Onion?

There are so many benefits to planting Nodding Onion. Nodding Onion is:

  • Deer resistant
  • Pollinator favorite
  • Drought-tolerant
  • Easy to grow in a variety of soils
  • Thrives in sun to part sun

Nodding Onion is also a native plant

Nodding Onion has grown in North America for thousands of years, making them a plant native to North America. 

Native plants are excellent choices to grow for many reasons, including:

  1. Native plants give bugs, pollinators, and birds the homes and food they need to survive
  2. Native plants require minimal work, water, and care to thrive (especially compared to lawns.) After being established, all Nodding Onions need is rain to thrive.
  3. Native plants are GORGEOUS. They have been hiding in plain sight and their beauty is undeniable. Explore our library to find your faves.
 
Nodding Onions planted alongside a suburban sidewalk attract looks of native pollinators

Where is Nodding Onion native?

Nodding Onion is native to most of the United States and Canada. Nodding Onion will happily thrive in any of the states in green. Map from the USDA’s Plants Database.

Where to plant Nodding Onion

Nodding Onions are shorter plants (12-16 inches). Because they are smaller plants, Nodding Onions look best when planted in groups of three or more. (Planting smaller plants in larger groups helps make a large impact in your garden.)

Nodding Onions are short—1-2 feet—so ensure they are not blocked by larger plants. Their shortness makes them look great in borders and containers.

If you make a mistake and plant them in a not-great spot—don’t worry! Simply dig them up (roots and all) and move them to a better location in the spring or fall. It’s so easy to recover from gardening mistakes when you plant native.

How to plant Nodding Onion

Nodding Onion is perfect for beginner gardeners, since it thrives in a wide range of light and soil.

Light

As mentioned earlier: Nodding Onion thrives in a wide range of light conditions, from full sun to part sun. The only spot that won’t work well is full shade.

Soil

Nodding Onion is just as resilient with sun as it is with soil. According to Everwilde Farms, “This plant adapts well to almost any soil and can survive in shade, clay, or rocky soil.” Again, if you feel you plant it in a not-great area, simply dig it up (roots and all) in the spring and fall and move it to a better spot.

Ninety % Native has a great overview video showing it in her hummingbird garden:

Plant Nodding Onion by seed

It is so easy to plant Nodding Onion by seed! You can plant them directly into the garden or in pots in the spring, as long as the seeds have been cold stratified

Seeds that need cold stratification mean they need to be cold first before they begin to sprout. (This cold period mimics winter.) Nodding Onion seeds need 60 days of cold before they will start to grow.

This means that if you grab some seeds from a friend’s garden, you’ll need to get them cold for 60 days before they can grow. You can either store them in the fridge or simply plant the seeds in the fall and let winter do it for you!

If you’re buying Nodding Onion seeds…most seed sellers put their seeds in the cold before selling—especially when you buy seeds in the spring. If you’re wondering if the seeds you’re buying have been cold stratified (or not), just send an email to seed selling website and ask.

There are lots of online seed sellers that offer Nodding Onion seeds. Some places to buy seeds include:

Can you eat Nodding Onion?

YES! Nodding Onion is edible—you can eat the flowers and stems, and even bulbs (although the bulbs are said to have a super strong onion flavor). Think of it like a native chive—a little bit of Nodding Onion in a dish goes a long way.

Plant Nodding Onion from plants

You can also buy Nodding Onion baby plants (called ‘starts’) in the spring from a local nursery or Master Gardener Plant Sale in the early spring. Simply call up your local independent plant nursery and see if they have some in stock. Most of the time, your local nursery can order native plants for you too—at no extra charge. 

Sadly, as of this article: no big-box nurseries have carried this plant. Fingers crossed more large-scale plant places start stocking more native plants in 2024!

When does Nodding Onion bloom?

Nodding Onions bloom in the mid-summer. You’ll see them in bloom alongside Butterfly Weed, Rattlesnake Master, Coreopsis (Tickseed), and Bee Balm.

What are good pairings for Nodding Onion?

Plant other pollinator favorites (as mentioned above) alongside flowers that bloom at other times to give pollinators food throughout the growing season. Late-blooming flowers include Asters, Black-Eyed Susans, Joe Pye Weed, and earlier-blooming flowers include Bee Balm and Blue-Eyed Grass.

native-aster-flowers-with-a-butterfly-garden

Aster

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Bee Balm

black-eyed-susans-native-flower-garden

Black-Eyed Susan

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Blue-Eyed Grass

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Joe Pye Weed

monarch-butterfly-on-a-common-milkweed-plant

Milkweed

Nodding Onion is a super to easy to grow addition to our native gardens. It’s graceful hanging flowers make it a favorite of pollinators—especially smaller bees, who can snuggle up to its pollen without fear of predators. It happily thrives in a variety of soils and withstands drought after its first year of planting. Nodding Onion is a beautiful addition to any Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Northeast, or Southern garden. Happy native planting!

Next steps and resources:

UPDATED —
02/19/2024
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