So, the Babbington leek is a "true perennial" allium.
Unlike regular perennial alliums that pretty much require human intervention for proliferation.
What I'm referring to is the traditional process of clonal reproduction (I'm leaving out the true seed reproduction process for now). As an example, with garlic, or multiplier onions/shallots, you plant one clove/bulb and when the growing cycle is completed, you harvest several clone clove/bulbs. You then take these, separate them out, and plant them, and the process repeats itself.
Typically, growers do not just plant the cloves/bulbs once, and then leave the patch unattended for years. If you did, the resultant clones would most likely sprout and grow again, but they would soon become crowded and packed together, and you would end up with a mess in short order. So, you do the work of replanting the cloned cloves/bulbs each year.
Now, think about our flower gardening friends who also plant bulbs. They plant their crocuses and daffodils and tulips and whatnot once, in the fall, and the next spring the bulbs sprout and send up their flowers. And, without any required human intervention, they will repeat this same growth each spring year after year. In other words . . . plant once, and reap the benefits year after year without any additional planting work necessary.
Babbington leeks act more like the latter than the former. The following is a gross over simplification, but it will illustrate the point:
You plant the bulb (or bulbil) once in the late summer/early fall. In late fall, it sends up a shoot, which overwinters very well in even very cold climates. In the spring it puts on a burst of growth, and produces a fine-looking leek. At this point, you can harvest the leek by cutting it off at ground level, or (more likely) dig down to the bulb neck and cut it off there, to get much more of that nice white stalk. And then, once again in the fall, the bulb will send up another shoot, and the following spring you harvest another leek. And do this year after year.
In my next post, I will expand on this process in greater detail, with descriptions and photos from my own experience.
Before I continue on, I thought I'd post a couple photos to clarify what I portrayed above regarding harvesting mature Babington leeks. (My own photos of these image types have been lost. I cannot shoot them again at this time of year, so photo credits to A. Tindale.) The first photo shows the dug around B. leek bulb base with the stalk growing out. The second photo show a group of leeks cut just above the base, with the bulbs left in the soil to resprout in the fall.
Scientific name: Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonii
So, to start off with my first bad: to wit, this allium is named for its "discoverer" Charles Cardale Babington . . . spelled with two "Bs" not three. Although, I have seen it spelled both ways in several locations, still, I should not be promulgating the incorrect version.
Babington was a contemporary of Charles Darwin at Cambridge University, and eventually became Chair of the Department of Botany there.
It is undetermined exactly when this leek was named for him. In 1840 he did publish an article in the 'Annals of Natural History' which discussed the various differences between regular leeks (allium porrum) and leeks classified as allium ampeloprasum (later taxonomists have placed all leeks in the a. ampeloprasum type).
Little is known about the origins of this leek. It is a rare species which grows wild mainly along the southwest English coast and Channel Islands. It reproduces clonally by either 1) root offset shoots, and/or, 2) topset bulbils. What little scientific literature exists on this plant theorizes that all current specimens derive from a single historic clone.
Recently, it has been coming into much wider horticultural and gastronomical appreciation in the UK. However, this leek is all but unknown here in the American gardening community . . . which is highly unfortunate, since it is a hardy, attractive, and very delicious vegetable. It is not at all difficult to grow, it just takes time to come to full harvestable maturity. It is not finicky -- all it wants is full sun and well-drained soil, and can tolerate heat, cold, and drought. And at this point, I have not detected any susceptibility to pests and diseases. But once you have a patch started, it will go on supplying you with wonderful leeks for many years to come, with very minimal maintenance by the gardener. What's not to like?!?
So, let's talk about cultivation. Note: from here forward, I'm going to talk about my own experience down this garden path, mainly because I have had zero contact with anybody else who has grown Babington's leeks. As always, your mileage may vary.
First off, you need to obtain some bulbils. If you are already growing B. leeks that are mature enough to be producing topsets, then you have a ready supply.
If you grow B. leeks, your topsets will produce the above sizes in approximately these ratios:
90% Tiny 8% Small 1.5% Medium .5% Large
In other words, Large and Medium are exceedingly rare. And since the size and vigor of the leeks are directly related to the size of the bulbils, at this point I have settled on planting only these two sized categories. With my first several topsetting seasons, I did not have that luxury, and planted all the bulbils I could grow. Note that the larger the leek, the earlier it will produce topsets -- most likely in the 2nd year instead of waiting for the 3rd year. Also note that as the leeks grow in age, the bulb grows larger, and they will more likely produce larger topset bulbils accordingly.
Wonderful info and the pictures are much appreciated! Does harvesting the top of the plant prevent clump formation and/or delay top setting?
When you take off the top of the plant, you are harvesting the leek stem to (purportedly) eat.
Assuming that you do this in the early spring, before the plant starts to send up its topset shoot, it will simply go into dormancy until the fall . . . when it will send up a new shoot. This shoot will grow and establish itself until the first frost, at which point it will go into dormancy again, until the following early spring, and which it will later (if not harvested again) send up a new topset stem in that later spring.
You can play this game of harvest/non-harvest/setting topsets, every single year, as long as you choose. That is one of the great beauties of this great allium, it responds predictably, on schedule, year after year after year.