Heirloom Onion Varieties
Learn how to grow heirloom onion varieties and discover how these plants are historically known to be cancer-fighting.
August 26, 2013
By William Woys Weaver
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom onion varieties was taken from chapter 25, “Onions.”
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom onion varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
A Brief History of Heirloom Onion Varieties
Onions, garlics, leeks, and shallots are all members of the genus Allium. They have recently become more respectable in the medical world because it has been discovered that they contain quercetin, a natural substance that suppresses some types of cell mutations that lead to cancer. This might explain why the ancients considered onions and red wine, which also contains quercetin, so important to good health. Along with viticulture, the many varieties of alliums that we cultivate in kitchen gardens trace their origin to the Old World. Their history in America has been one long, gradual adaptation to our soils and climate, for in spite of their hardiness, there are no vegetables more sensitive to these conditions than the alliums.
My collection is concentrated primarily in garlics, shallots, and topsetting onions, secondarily in leeks. Many of my rarest alliums came into my collection due to the generosity of John Swenson, a member of Seed Savers Exchange. John participated in an important botanical expedition into Central Asia about ten years ago in search of rare alliums, with rich results. I have a long list of plants that were gathered during that expedition, including Allium farctum, discovered in Afghanistan in 1972, Allium altaicum from Mongolia, and giant Siberian chives (Allium ledebourianum), not to mention a huge collection of rare garlics and shallots.
Louis Van Deven, another Seed Savers Exchange onion collector, and author of a little booklet called Onions and Garlic Forever (1992), has also provided me with plant stock and much advice. He has been especially helpful in assembling a choice collection of such native American alliums as ramps (Allium tricoccum), topsetting meadow garlic (Allium canadense), and the unusual Douglas onion (Allium douglasii) from the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon. But there are many others. Louis is special. He has opinions. His letters roll into dissertations full of salty observations on forty-five years of gardening experience. He has given my collection a personal dimension that I suppose is only evident to me: when I am out among my garlics, it is almost as though he is standing nearby, lecturing.
Eighteenth-century American kitchen gardeners did not have the luxury of friends in Seed Savers Exchange. They had to rely heavily on imported seed because seed saved from plants grown here degenerated quickly. And since onions imported from Spain and Portugal could be purchased cheaply — at least in the seaport cities — there was no pressing economic reason to develop our own varieties until after the Revolution. But then it happened quickly.
The Wells Brothers of Wethersfield, Connecticut, began raising onions on a commercial basis in 1788. The mucky lowlands of Connecticut’s sunken coastline were perfect for onion culture. Soon many port towns on Long Island Sound became involved in shipping onions up and down the Atlantic coast, as well as exporting them to the West Indies. Southport, Connecticut, became Americas onion emporium, and even today, long after the demise of the onion farms in that area, old buildings connected with the onion trade still stand along Southport’s waterfront.
The Connecticut onionmen raised their crops in onion beds on the same principle as the cepinae of the ancient Romans. The beds were heavily fertilized, but crops were never rotated. The American Agriculturist (1868, 357) reported that the Wells Brothers had been growing onions in the same fields for 80 years. This is what makes good onion ground. The lesson here, which applied to all the alliums, is to create permanent onion beds in part of the kitchen garden. Over time, the ground will mellow out and produce excellent yields. The common fear about this non-rotation method is that it will encourage onion maggots, which attack the bulbs. This problem can be dealt with by making a strong tea of burdock leaves and applying it when it is at room temperature around the base of the plants.
Many of the heirloom onions grown in America today, varieties like Yellow Danvers, Red Wethersfield, and Southport White Globe, were developed by the onion farmers themselves through careful selection. The globe onion came to us from England, but under Yankee guidance, it evolved into a thoroughly American variety. There were also seedsmen connected with the onion growers, who took the Connecticut varieties and perfected them for commerce. Among these was the firm of Comstock, Ferre of Wethersfield, which made Connecticut onion seed well known even in the 1840s. The Shakers also acquired many of these onions and further promoted them through their seed lists. The Large Red of their 1843 seed catalog was the same onion later known as Red Wethersfield.
Unfortunately, New England onions cannot be grown in warmer parts of the country, so seed trade with Europe continued in an ongoing effort to fine-tune onion varieties to the widely diverse soil and climate conditions that exist in this country. The Farmer’s Encyclopaedia (1844, 859) listed fourteen varieties of onions, among them Portugal, Globe, Lisbon, James’s Keeping Onion, Silver Skinned, and Strasburg. All of these were imported varieties.
James’s Keeping Onion is an eighteenth-century English variety from Surrey that is still available, one of the few named onion varieties from that century for which this holds true. It may grow successfully in parts of the country above 39 degrees north latitude. The Portugal, Lisbon, and Silver Skinned onions were planted in my part of the country, not surprisingly, since we are on the same latitude as Spain and Portugal. In fact, the Silver Skinned was also known as Philadelphia White and was once used extensively in pickling. Strasburg was also called Yellow Dutch and was a preferred variety among the Pennsylvania Dutch.
B. K. Bliss & Sons of New York advertised in their 1873 seed catalog five onions that they considered the best for American kitchen gardens. Having grown all of these five at one time or another, I think that this selection has a certain timelessness about it, for it will appeal to many levels of gardening experience. I have used the Bliss list for my choice of onions, although personally, I prefer small onions, shallots, leeks, and garlics because they do not occupy as much space as the larger varieties. Furthermore, there is a catch-22.
Heirloom onions are mostly available as seed, not as onion sets. Therefore, the seed must be planted in flats in May or June, then thinned and planted in the garden by mid-August or early September. These seedlings will then make sets that can be dug up, dried, and saved until spring, or overwintered in the ground and thinned the following year. When transplanting the onion seedlings, it is advisable to trim the tops back a few inches to encourage root growth. This will also result in better onions sooner. The clippings can be used like chives in salads and soups — why waste them? However, seedlings cannot be planted in the spring with the expectation of harvesting onions the first year unless the onions are small-bulbed varieties to begin with. More likely, seedlings planted in the spring will go dormant over the summer unless watered profusely. I mention this only to warn the reader that growing fine onions is not as easy as staking up a tomato vine. There have been times when I have been down on my knees with a grapefruit spoon planting onion seedlings one by one, each the size of a blade of grass, wondering to myself all the while why I had not stuck to shallots.
Some small seed houses have begun offering sets for many heirloom onions. More would do so if they received encouragement from customers. Where sets are available, I would urge my readers to avail themselves of this service, or pool resources with several gardening neighbors and convince a small grower to grow sets for them. However, if the sets are homegrown, the Pennsylvania Dutch had the following advice for overwintering them. (I have translated this from Der Hoch-Deutsche Germantaun Calender for 1838.)
To Grow Very Large Onions
Store the onions all winter long near a warm stove, and plant them as usual in the spring. The onions will grow so large that each one will weigh more than a pound.
I thought I would mention this because it works, although I am not sure why.
When growing any onions for seed, select only the finest specimens, replant them in a corner of the onion bed, and let them come to flower. When the tops begin to yellow, the seed can be collected. Onion seed is black and looks like leek seed and the seed of garlic chives, and this should be warning enough to label it carefully. Furthermore, all varieties of onions (Allium cepa) will cross with each other, with most topsetting onions (Allium cepa var. proliferum), and with some Welsh onions (Allium fistulosum). For seed purity, they must be isolated by at least a mile.
Since the original dates of introduction and the names of the originators are not presently known for Bliss’s select five onions, I will simply list them and provide descriptive material that seems pertinent. In truly hot regions of the country where these onions cannot be raised, I would suggest Giant Rocca, a mild Italian onion introduced from England in 1872 by Rochester, New York, seedsman James Vick; or Burpee’s Prizetaker, a yellow-skinned, white-fleshed onion introduced in 1888.
The bulb of this onion, originally known as Large Red, grows 6 to 8 inches in diameter. It is oblate in shape, slightly flat on top and bottom. The skin is purple-red, the flesh purple-white, and stronger flavored than most yellow onions. It was used extensively in pickling red cabbage in the nineteenth century. It is a good storage onion.
Thomas DeVoe noted in his Market Assistant (1866, 339) that prior to the 1830s red onions were “principally sold, fastened on a wisp of straw about the size of a man’s thumb, which were called a ‘string’ or ‘rope of onions.’” Garlics are often tied up and sold this way today.
Also known as Southport White Globe, this onion is perfectly round in shape, with a smooth white skin. This variety is always recommended over all other white onions for American kitchen gardens in old garden books because it can be grown in many parts of the country, including the Upper South. Unfortunately, it is not a good keeper, but it makes delicious soup. The following recipe, a study in simplicity, is taken from the Norwich, Connecticut, cookbook of Mrs. Elizabeth F. Ellet, The New Cyclopaedia of Domestic Economy (1873, 183).
Onions, peeled, pared, and cut into pieces, then shred into a pan and fried in either oil or butter, without any broth, but simply having boiling water poured over them, and some toasted bread, seasoned merely with pepper and salt, are considered very refreshing when thus made into a soup, and much used by ladies throughout Europe after the fatigues of a ball.
Also known as Philadelphia White and Philadelphia Silver Skin, this variety was introduced from Portugal in the 1780s. The shape of the bulb is oblate, flat on top and bottom. It is a medium-sized onion that can be raised from seed planted in the spring. It normally produces a number of small (undersized) bulbs that are excellent for pickling or for use as pearl onions.
This onion is known under many aliases, including Danvers Yellow, Round Yellow Danvers, and Yellow Globe Danvers. It is a highly productive, round, yellow-fleshed strain developed out of the old common yellow onion introduced from England in the eighteenth century. Bulbs are normally about 3 inches in diameter and about 2 3/4 inches tall. Seed can be planted in the spring for a September harvest. The skin is a distinctive brownish yellow. In spite of its many merits, it does not store well.
Also known as Southport Yellow Globe, this onion is not as uniform in productivity as the preceding, but it is better acclimated to warmer parts of the country. It resembles White Globe except for its color. The skin is reddish yellow. The onion is an excellent keeper.
Allium cepa var. aggregatum
I have so many shallots that I hardly know where to begin digging when it comes time to harvest them. Entire beds are devoted to shallots alone. There are different colors, different shapes, different intensities of flavor. I am not certain what the biblical shallots were like, but they were evidently well appreciated and disseminated over a large part of the Mediterranean world during Roman times. They are referred to specifically in the A.D. 820 cloister plan of St. Gall in Switzerland, and we know from their name that even then they were presumed to come from Ashkelon, a city in what is now Israel.
Colonial Americans called them “scallions” or “scullions,” and so did my grandmother, who preferred the young greens to the minced bulbs. I think it was this once-common preference for the tops that caused many people to confuse scallions with bunching onions, and to disdain the bulbs as a type of garlic. Robert Buist (1847, 119) observed, “Though it has been two hundred years in cultivation, very little of the article is used in this country, unless by the French.” Shallots were something found in the kitchen gardens of the well-to-do. The poor treated them like garlic, and kept the bulbs like olive oil, for home remedies.
The oldest American variety of shallot for which there is any definite proof that it is indeed an heirloom is a nameless white-skinned shallot presently in circulation among seed savers. It is often called white heirloom shallot or small white shallot simply as a matter of convenience. In some ways, it fits the descriptions of the Italian Shallot or Cape Shallot introduced in 1837, although it could very well be an English strain developed from it. It is found in many old kitchen gardens across the South. The bulbs now being circulated among seed savers originated in a garden in Newport, North Carolina. They are generally about 2 inches in diameter.
We are on firmer ground with the Jersey Shallot, which was first noted in Le Bon Jardinier in 1840 under the name éscbalote de Jersey. It had been raised in Scotland for some years prior to that under the name Russian Shallot. Scottish gardeners often dubbed foreign and unusual vegetables as “Russian,” which has sometimes led food historians astray, since it had nothing to do with a Russian connection. Philadelphia gardeners used “Spanish” in this same context. Thus, the Russian shallots of Scotland and the Spanish shallots of Philadelphia came from the island of Jersey, also famous for its cow cabbages. American gardeners were introduced to this variety in the 1840s under the name false shallot, since it was presumed to be a species of onion that resembled a shallot. The problem with this logic was that shallots are onions; botanically they are the same species.
The Album Vilmorin (24:1873) depicted it as a variety synonymous with éscbalote d’Alençon. More properly, this is the large Russian strain of the Jerseys, and frankly, one could argue that is not even a strain, just large bulbs separated out from the small. Vilmorin (1885, 523) also stated that the Russian shallots of England belonged to a different variety of shallot, fully contradicting the firm’s own seed lists of forty years earlier. The Jersey shallot grown from seed will often produce very large bulbs like the so-called Russian strain, weighing as much as 6 ounces or more. These can then be selected out for size. There is no mystery. I have done this many times. The Alençon is just the French name for the big ones.
Two later French varieties that are now very popular among onion collectors are the Besançon sweet yellow shallot and the Prince de Bretagne, the latter one of the leading heirloom varieties of Brittany. It is also the reddest. All four of these heirlooms are highly recommended for heirloom kitchen gardens.
Shallots are cultivated like onion sets. They should be planted about 6 to 8 inches apart after the first frost in the fall. They will overwinter in the ground without protection and emerge the following spring. Like garlic, shallots produce much larger and much healthier bulbs if they are vernalized by this cold-weather treatment. In the summer, after the tops turn yellow, the bulbs may be dug and stored in a cool dry place. If the Jersey shallots appear to be sending up flowers, cut them off so that all the strength of the plant may be concentrated in the bulbs. If Jersey shallots bloom, they will cross with the same alliums listed for common onions.
'Welsh' Onions or 'Bunching' Onions
This species is subdivided into many varieties and often referred to in commercial seed catalogs as Japanese bunching onion. Some of the most popular varieties today are indeed of Japanese origin, among them Ishikura. However, the heirloom variety that was introduced into England in the 1500s as poultry feed originated in Siberia, and when mature has a stem much like a leek, yet the leaves are hollow like onions. This is the historical variety of early American kitchen gardens and the one depicted in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (1809, 1230).
This variety was called Welsh onion because when the seed was sent to England in 1562, it came from a Swiss botanist who referred to it as Welsch, which means foreign. Another layer of confusion was added to this because the Welsh onion became the poor man’s leek, and leeks, of course, have been long associated with Wales. The plant is extremely hardy and may be treated as a perennial. The large two-or three-year-old plants can be culled for the kitchen, while the small onions that form along the sides can be replanted to start more clumps. Furthermore, the onion flowers profusely, and the seed is easy to cultivate simply by scratching the ground in the bed and scattering the seed broadcast.
In The American Home Garden (1859, 160), Alexander Watson devoted a lengthy discussion to the Welsh onion and recommended it for private gardens. Since the white variety is much easier to cultivate than leeks, I quite agree with his conclusions. Fearing Burr (1865, 138) listed two varieties, the white Welsh onion (the variety of this discussion) and the red Welsh onion. Burr’s information was taken from the Vilmorin garden book of 1856. I doubt he ever saw the plants, because he noted (incorrectly) that they were not found in gardens in this country. What he meant was that they were not a commercial product readily salable in markets at that time. This is confirmed by Thomas DeVoe’s Market Assistant (1866), which made no reference to them whatever.
As a working man’s substitute for leeks, the Welsh onion was cultivated in this country since the early eighteenth century, perhaps even as early as the 1680s. It was a source of spring greens, but it was not raised, as it is today, primarily for its small delicate green onions, so important to French and Asian cooking. Furthermore, confusion arises in old garden books when it is not clear what is meant by a “bunching” onion, for many onions called Welsh onion or ciboule actually belonged to other species. I have in my collection a fine bunching onion of medieval Polish origin, but it is Allium ursinum, a cultivated form of bear garlic. Even the topsets of tree onions can be planted whole to form perfect bunches of delicate onions for the fall.
After the Civil War, when market gardening assumed commercial importance and when Victorian cookbooks began to reform America’s rustic eating habits in a large way, delicate spring onions became a necessary ingredient in urban middle-class cookery. Market gardeners found that they could force small sets of Southport White Globe and White Lisbon onions to produce bunching onions quite as delicate as the French varieties. White Lisbon yields bunching onions in 50 days, a highly profitable turnaround. A good portion of the spring onions sold in American markets today are White Lisbon. The Southport onion was developed even further into a special bunching strain called Southport White Bunching, although its use is now declining.
The oldest evidence of the cultivation of leeks comes from Egypt in the form of actual plants buried in grave sites as part of the votive meal for the afterlife. I have seen these dried, shriveled-up Egyptian hors d’oeuvres at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and that they dated from between 1550 and 1320 B.C. was the least interesting thing about them, impressive as it was. It was the shape of the leaves. I would never have guessed that they were leeks. The leaves of the ancient varieties were consistently long and narrow, more like rocombole garlics in appearance. Some of the remains have since been identified as Allium kurrat, which is similar to leek. I am now inspired to grow it; if I ever want to host a pharaonic feast, or a Roman meal in the Alexandrian mode, or stowaway snacks for my mummy case, I will most certainly need this vital ingredient.
The Romans also raised leeks, although somewhat different in physical characteristics. The porrum capitatum of Roman gardens was actually depicted in full color in the codex of Dioskorides dating from A.D. 500 to 511. It is not thick in the stem like the leeks we know today, and it has a bulb similar to its wild relatives; though the leaves are large and broad, and there is no doubt about its leekness, I wonder whether it did not have the lingering aroma of ramps. It just looks as though it ought to taste very strongly of something. Working people in colonial America did not object to strong onion tastes. The rank wild garlic that infests lawns in my part of the country was introduced in the late 1600s to flavor milk and cheese, although the odor carries for a good city block. Leeks, by comparison, are bland.
The true leek of early America appears to have been a gentleman’s food. In glancing over Bernard M’Mahon’s 1815 seed catalog, with its huge selections of turnips, cabbages, peas, and radishes, there are only two varieties of leek, the Common Leek and the Broad-Leaved Leek. This says a great deal about its culinary role in the cookery of the period. Yet the situation did improve rapidly, at least in the cities.
Thomas DeVoe reported in the Market Assistant (1866, 335) that leeks were sold in the markets tied up in bundles with bunches of parsley for use in soups. He added: “The leeks, when properly blanched, are boiled, and served with toasted bread and white sauce, and eaten as asparagus.” This is exactly how my great-grandmother prepared them. But she only made the dish on special occasions (using culls) because she sold her best leeks for a high profit in Philadelphia. She raised Musselburgh leeks, and so do I.
There is other anecdotal evidence about the popularity of leeks in this country, although much of it points in the direction of the South. Perhaps the climate, with its mild winters, encouraged the cultivation of leeks more than in the North. A letter to the editor of Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Magazine (1881, 256) complained about the lack of good vegetables in Columbia, Missouri: “I have only resided here about two or three years, having lived in Louisiana, where the Leek-bed was considered a treasure, as they came on so much earlier than other vegetables in the spring.” A leek bed is indeed a treasure, and I am certainly a glutton to have four, but since I eat leeks almost every day, it is a “just sufficiency,” to quote an old Quaker phrase, and a healthy sufficiency at that. One more thing: Leeks in the markets are expensive and often not worth the crates they are shipped in. Keeping a leek bed is plain common-sense economics. When it is properly maintained, it will provide a constant supply all year long.
Leeks are propagated from seed. They are started in flats in the late winter and, when they are large enough to have three or four leaves, moved to their permanent location. They can be planted early because light frosts will not injure them. Space the seedlings about 12 inches apart, 16 to 18 if they are to be interplanted with kohlrabies, radishes, or other small root vegetables. Leeks are also highly compatible with turnips, and the onion smell will keep many insects away. Different varieties of leeks can be planted in succession over a two-month period so that they come to crop at different times. Leeks left in the ground over the winter normally produce an epicurean delight the second season. This is known as the “leek bulb,” small bulbs that form about the base of leeks that are ready to bloom. Some of the bulbs can grow quite large, perhaps an inch in diameter, and make a perfect substitute for shallots. The longer the leeks are in the ground, the larger the leek bulbs become, and they can be further increased by breaking off the flower spikes.
As I write this, with deep snow on the ground, Musselburgh, the Lyon Prizetaker, Saint Victor, and Monstreux de Carentan are standing in the garden. I recommend three of these as heirlooms. The fourth, Saint Victor, is a recent selection of an old French variety called Bleu de Solaise, which is well worth growing if seed can be had. I am not certain that Saint Victor is in any way superior to the others for culinary purposes, but on the other hand, it outshines the rest in looks, for its leaves are tinged with violet and blue and add a cheerful decorative touch to the kitchen garden. Never forget, the eye eats first.
This is an English variety with long, thick stems that began appearing in American seed lists about 1886. It matures in 135 days.
The ancestor of this leek was the Gros-Court from Rouen, which produced immense fat stems, often 13 inches in diameter. Its size was not equaled by its tenderness, so it was used by the Vilmorins in the 1820s to breed large size into other varieties. The monstreux de Carentan is one of those descendants. It is characterized by short stems, about 6 to 8 inches in height, with a thick base often 3 inches in diameter or larger. I have grown some as large as 5 inches in diameter, due I think to a spell of cool, wet weather. Because this variety is sensitive to drought and heat, it is not commercially grown in some parts of the country. For example, I would certainly not recommend it for southwest Texas unless well irrigated. It was introduced into the United States in the 1880s under the name giant Italian leek, which has caused some confusion about its origin. The Vilmorins depicted it in the Album Vilmorin (1883, 34) just about the time it was becoming well known in Europe.
I could claim a certain sentimental prejudice regarding the subject of the Musselburgh leek, owing to my great-grandmother’s penchant for growing it. And when I make her leek pie with figs and fennel root, this sentimentality can verge on pure rejoicing. Yet the Musselburgh stands quite on its own, with a little Scottish independence thrown in; it is the tough reliability of this one that makes it past a long list of leeks with much fancier names. I use tough in the sense of durable, for I have never pulled a tough Musselburgh in all my years of gardening. This delicious leek appears to have evolved out of an older French leek known as Gros-Court, a huge sort, very fat at the base, cultivated by a certain market gardener by the name of Duvillers near Paris. This leek merchant found the strain on a farm in the vicinity of Rouen, and for a number of years made a good profit off his discovery. The ever-vigilant Vilmorins obtained seed and in the 1820s used Gros-Court to create several commercial varieties now well known for their large size. One of these they sold to English market gardeners, who cultivated it under the name London Flag. Under this English name, it became one of the most widely cultivated leeks in the United States well into the 1870s.
Vilmorin seed for a sister strain traveled to Edinburgh, where Scottish seedsmen developed it into a variety of their own, shorter than London Flag and a paler shade of green. But it adapted well to the northerly climate, and this has been one of its perennial graces. Introduced in 1834, the leek was named for Musselburgh, a coastal town on the Firth of Forth where many market gardens were once situated. Today, the town has been swallowed up as a suburb of Edinburgh.
For ail the merits of London Flag, it was eventually surpassed in this country by the leek from Scotland. W. W. Rawson noted in his Success in Market Gardening (1892, 145) that Musselburgh was by then the principal market variety. I cannot argue with him on that point, nor with my great-grandmother’s judgment. This is one leek that will do very well in most parts of the country. It should be treated as a biennial.
The early American attitude toward garlic may be summed up by Amelia Simmons’s one-line discussion of the subject in American Cookery (1796, 12): “Tho’ used by the French, [they] are better adapted to the uses of medicine than cookery.” The discussion of American heirloom garlics is about as long. Simply put, among Anglo-Americans garlic was not well liked. Other ethnic groups used it — the Spanish in the Southwest, the Pennsylvania Dutch, the French in Louisiana — but the Yankee kitchen rarely smelled of garlic unless it was to fumigate for disease. I find this historical disdain contradictory, considering the old Anglo-American love of “rareripes,” green bulblets of potato onions that were eaten raw with vinegar. This delicacy was just as pungent as garlic, and a lot harder on the digestion. Nineteenth-century cookbook author Eliza Leslie remarked in one of her books on behavior that garlic was unbecoming because it alluded to certain unpleasant body odors. In an age when people did not bathe with regularity, this may have been the root of the old American dislike for garlic. Now that we do not stink so much, we like to eat it. Of all the alliums grown today, American gardeners are the craziest for garlic, proven medical benefits aside. What many gardeners do not realize is that the elephant garlic, which has gained in popularity recently, is not a garlic at all but rather a type of leek that forms bulbs. It does not have the medical constituents of true garlic. What constitutes a garlic then? There are essentially two types.
All garlics belong to the genus Allium and the species sativum; thus if they produce flowers, they will cross. Crosses will occur in the topsets that form from the flowers, not in the bulbs already underground. I mention this because during gardening workshops, many people are confused about how members of the onion family cross. The species is further divided out into two groups called “softneck” (var. sativum) and “hardneck” or rocombole (var. opbioscorodon). The softneck garlics are called braidable varieties because their tops are soft-stemmed and dry into a grass that can be tied together with other garlics to form them into long chains. Garlics are often sold this way in markets, although it is a waste of money if they are a variety that does not store well. The softneck varieties are propagated from bulbs reserved after harvest. All garlics should be planted in the late fall for best bulb development the following year.
The hardneck varieties form topsets on stems that rise up like snakes. The seedhead is covered with a membrane resembling a hood. Before they open, the flowers unroll like the long beaks of cranes; once open, they look like cobras. I trust these descriptions because they were given to me by children who often visit my garden in groups, and children have good imaginations. These hardneck or rocombole varieties are the ones depicted in medieval herbals. They are extremely hardy and may be treated as perennials. However, they thrive better in rich soil, and do better north of 37° latitude. This type of garlic is propagated from its tiny topsets. They are planted in the ground like onion sets and allowed to grow for two years. After that, the bulbs may be dug and harvested. The small ones are returned the ground and replanted along with a few new topsets. In this manner, the garlic is maintained for many years.
My burden now is to recommend some heirloom varieties that are easy to grow yet have some historical connection with our culture. We have been flooded recently with heirloom garlics from other parts of the world, and many of these are truly culinary surprises. I think, however, that I will choose three red heirlooms, since white-skinned garlics are common in supermarkets. All three of these are available from the seed houses listed at the back of this book. These firms also offer many of the Asian varieties that I have tried, so it would be worth the effort to obtain their catalogs. I think, at last check, that I have fifty-three different sorts of garlics, but many of them are so rare that they can only be obtained through Seed Savers Exchange. Lastly, my three choices store well, which is a very important consideration. The fancy white-skinned garlics are not always good keepers, as many cooks already know.
This is a medieval garlic strain that was brought here by German immigrants in the eighteenth century. It is a vigorous grower, often reaching 5 to 6 feet in height. The leaves are deep green and arranged opposite each other. There are usually 10 to 15 cloves in a cluster. The flavor is robust. The Pennsylvania Dutch use the leaves of fall and spring sprouts in cabbage salads.
I will be offering through Seed Savers Exchange in 1997 or 1998 the Maxatawny Garlic, an extremely rare variety of German rocombole garlic that was brought to Pennsylvania by the Moravians in the 1740s. It originated in Silesia in what is now western Poland and was preserved by the Helfferich family for homeopathic medicines. The bulbs are bronze in color.
One of the most productive of all the heirloom garlics, this softneck variety is also an artichoke type. This means that its bulbs cluster in layers like artichoke petals. The variety was discovered on the Coleville Indian Reservation at Inchelium, Washington. It has consistently won high marks (often taking first place) in garlic tastings. From a culinary standpoint, it is probably one of the best of the American heirloom reds.
Introduced in the latter part of the nineteenth century, this red rocombole type has been consistently popular with kitchen gardeners. The bulbs are about 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches in diameter with 6 to 12 cloves per bulb. It is popular with many cooks because it is easy to peel. It also has a very fragrant taste, much more intense than that of many white garlics. However, it cannot be grown in areas that do not have cold winters.
Tree Onions and Potato Onions
Although the potato onion is a form of shallot, while the tree onion represents a more distinct varietal group, both have been hybridized with each other to produce many intermediate forms. The two are sometimes confused and both have been called Egyptian onions at various times in the past. Because it is a shallot, the potato onion may have a Mediterranean origin, yet there is no evidence that it came from Egypt. On the other hand, it was the potato onion that was first called Egyptian by English seedsmen, not the topsetting onions. There is nothing Egyptian about the tree onion, and I sincerely hope that American gardeners stop using that name altogether. It was invented in England most likely as a marketing gimmick.
Cultivated topsetting onions appeared in American and English gardens in the late eighteenth century more or less out of nowhere. It is a very curious piece of horticultural history that such a distinctive vegetable would have gone unnoticed until the 1790s and that it would burst upon the kitchen gardens of England without a shred of documentation, yet as a thing foreign and exotic. This is an onion that is not easily missed. It produces a stem about as thick as a human thumb at its base, which can be eaten like a shallot, at least in the mature plants. Many plants produce no bulblike roots at all, but resemble large bunching onions. When the plant blooms, it sends up a hollow flower stalk that produces clusters of small onions called bulbils. In some varieties, the bulbils attain a large size and can be harvested as pearl onions. Many varieties produce bulbils that are much smaller, and some are not worth gathering for culinary purposes. The primary usefulness of this class of onion lies in its early production of greens in the spring — it is one of the first green plants to break through the snow — and in the bulbils, which can be used in pickling or in general cookery like shallots.
The earliest reports of this onion thus far place specimens in Edinburgh in the early 1790s and in the nursery of a Mr. Driver near London in 1796. Botanists at the time quickly dismissed any Egyptian connection because it was “well known” long before the British fleet blockaded Napoleon in Egypt, the confrontation that led to the folkloric discovery of the onion (I have visions of its roots clinging to the Rosetta stone as it was lifted from the sand). The botanical explanation was that it originated in Canada and therefore was a form of Allium canadense. This would make the French Canadians extremely happy, if only it were true. Yet in this scientific vein, Sydenham Edwards referred to the onion as the Canada tree onion in his 1807 garden book, and when such things go into print, they often become semiofficial.
Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (1812, 1469) approved of the Canadian origin and illustrated a handsome specimen not quite like any I have seen: the flesh of the bulbil was white, but there was a purplish tinge to the skin similar to the colors found in the leaves of the Saint Victor leek. It was noted that the bulbils were superior for pickling. Curtis has thus far provided us with an exquisite picture of a variety not now in circulation (and perhaps extinct) and an unsatisfactory genealogy. The origin of the cultivated tree onion is presently unknown and may be unknowable because the plant is a hybrid, a cross, a backyard creation. It has many wild counterparts in Central Asia, none exactly like it, but it does not exist in its present form in some untamed primitive location.
American gardeners have resorted to a wide roster of names for this onion because they have been thoroughly confused by seedsmen. Therefore we may call it tree onion, Egyptian onion, top onion, walking onion, and Catawissa onion in the same breath. Only in the case of the Catawissa connection may we be dealing with true varieties or subvarieties. The only reason for this distinction is that a Catawissa, Pennsylvania, nurseryman by the name of F. F. Merceron (little is known about this individual) engaged in improving the tree onion for commercial purposes. His strains are somewhat different from the others because they send up topsets from topsets, creating the image of plants growing out of plants. These hybrids are strong growers, often attaining 4 or 5 feet in height, and always in need of staking as a precaution against heavy summer rains.
Mary Larkin Thomas, whom I mentioned in my introduction, knew the whereabouts of one of Merceron’s old fields in the vicinity of Roaring Creek Friends Meeting House near Catawissa. We went there in the early 1970s and found an entire field of Merceron’s red strain, long abandoned but still thick with onions in a naturalized state. I brought a few of those onions into my garden and have cultivated them ever since.
Merceron was involved in a number of bold schemes to promote his onion for pickling. The pieces to his story are at present buried somewhere in an historical society archive, but this much is known. He developed three distinct strains of tree onions, a red variety (which I have), a white, and a yellow. Alexander Watson mentioned these strains in passing in his American Home Garden (1859, 159), noting that by then the onions were already being sent in large quantities to northern markets from Bermuda and the South.
Merceron was more directly involved in the establishment of a tree onion industry around Vevey, Indiana. Thus, his plant stock became widely disseminated in the Midwest. He also appears to have served as supplier or middleman to large seed houses for such New York dealers as R. L. Allen. Allen advertised “Top Onions or Button Onions” in the American Agriculturist (1858, 93). The final chapter in Merceron’s story has not been written, and doubtless many of the heirloom varieties preserved today were improved by other breeders, yet he occupies an interesting niche in the history of the early American kitchen garden.
There are hundreds of variant forms of the tree onion now available among seed savers. I would recommend three: Merceron’s Red Catawissa, Fleener’s Topsetting Onion (an excellent white pearl onion), and Moritz Egyptian, a maroon-colored variety from Missouri. I would rather it were called Missouri Moritz, but it does not appear this way in seed lists — yet.
Topsetting onions are propagated by planting the topsets like onion sets, spacing them about 8 inches apart. The greens, among the first to appear in the spring, may be harvested like chives or spring onions. The onions bloom in the early summer and form topsets that can be harvested. The topsets make delightful flavored vinegars or can be used in pickles. The parent plants can be treated like a perennial. Topsetting onions will cross with other members of the cepa species.
This variety of shallot is propagated by planting small bulbs in the fall or early spring. The bulbs grow into large onions that can be harvested the first year. Left in the ground, the onion will sprout and break down into a number of small bulbs within the outer skin. The small bulbs grow into clusters like shallots and can be harvested, dried, and used for replanting. The potato onion was cultivated both for its mature onion and for the spring “rare-ripes,” which resemble sprouting shallots. It was grown in many parts of the country where common onions would not thrive.
The potato onion was introduced into England in the 1790s under the name Egyptian onion, a name also applied to tree onions in common parlance. The Farmer’s Encyclopedia (Johnson 1844, 861) stated that the onion had been first introduced at Edinburgh by a certain Captain Burns, and for this reason it was sometimes called the Burns onion. There were two varieties, one that set bulbs on top like a tree onion, the other never sending up flowers. The onion appeared in American seed lists shortly after 1800 under the name English multiplier or English underground onion. Boston seedsman John B. Russell offered both the potato onion and tree onion in his 1828 seed catalog (no mention of Egypt, incidentally). A French pamphlet called Exposition de fleurs et d’autres produits de l’horticulture published at Lyon in 1840 not only provided an illustration of the potato onion — one of the earliest — but included detailed instructions for propagating it. A brief history of the onion in this country appeared in The Onion Book (1887, 32), noting that the most common variety was yellow-brown. This is the same yellow-brown variety depicted in the Album Vilmorin (1871, 22), and therefore may be considered the standard for the variety.
In the spring, when the mother bulb divides into many small bulbs, the bulbs turn a green color and, when just beginning to sprout, are harvested as “rare-ripes.” This was once an extremely popular spring dish in early America. The rare-ripes were chopped and eaten raw with vinegar as a type of salad, sometimes accompanied by raw oysters.
I recommend the yellow potato onion for heirloom gardens. This variety is readily available from several seed firms.
Find seeds for these heirlooms and more with our Custom Seed and Plant Finder.
Photos and Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver.
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