Garden Time: The Incredible, Edible Onion

onion 'rings'By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

Of all the vegetables, herbs and spices used to season food and heal the body, the unassuming onion is rarely given its proper dues.  Every day, billions of onions are sliced, diced, shredded, minced, fried, baked, dried, juiced and sautéed for our culinary pleasures, yet seldom do we sing its praises.  For a plant that serves so many needs and desires in our kitchens, gardens and herbal pantries, the savory, spicy-sweet goodness of onions in all their forms should be elevated to something nearing Nirvana.  

Even if you aren’t a fan of traditional spicy-sweet globe onions, surely you have enjoyed one of its many cousins, including garlic, leeks, shallots and scallions.  All of these plants belong to the Amaryllis (Amaryllidaceae) family (formerly classified under the Lilliaceae family), which includes the lovely and highly regarded flowering perennials of the same name.   Within that incredibly large family is the genus Allium, to which all onions and garlic belong.  These are just few of the more common allium species:
  • A. ampeloprasum – leeks and elephant garlic
  • A. cepa – common bulb, potato, and multiplier onions and shallots
  • A. fistulosum – Welsh or Japanese bunching onions
  • A. sativum – common garlic
  • A. schoenoprasum – onion chives
  • A. tuberosum – garlic chives

onion setsMost common onions are grown from seed or from “sets”, which are simply baby onions grown from seed and allowed to develop a small bulb.  Some gardeners find that sets allow them to produce harvest-size onions more quickly than those started from seed.  Onions that do not produce large bulbs, such as bunching onions, chives and leeks, are always started from seed.

All onions mature in relation to the number of hours of sun received at the  height of summer and each variety has a specific maximum day length it needs to trigger this action.  This is most important when growing  common bulb onions.  If the day length is not long enough for the variety, the bulbs will be small in size.  In general, if you live in Zone 7 or below, you should grow only long-day varieties, while those gardening in Zone 8 and above will be best served by planting short-day varieties.  Day-neutral onions can be grown in any zone.  Harvest bulb onions in late summer after the tops begin to yellow and fall over.

ARS_red_onionThere are essentially three types of common bulb onion, the most common being yellow onions, which are sometimes called cooking or winter onions because they hold up well during long periods of cooking and are excellent keepers.   Next are the red “salad” onions, which are sweet and mildly-flavored, making them the choice for dishes where raw onions are desired.  Last, but not least, are the white onions. These small, round onions seem to fall somewhere in between the yellow and red types in terms of flavor and use.  This is often the favorite onion of non-onion lovers because it is versatile and does not become strongly-flavored during storage.  As onions age, their sugars slowly turn to starches.  Because of this, old onions are often not very sweet.

Other types of onions include those grown for their tender elongated stems and such as leeks, scallions and bunching onions, which are easily started from seed indoors about 8 weeks prior to the last spring frost.  Thin seedlings to stand at least 1/4” apart in pots, keeping the leaves trimmed down to 3-4” tall.  This helps the plant put  more energy into developing a good root system.  Plant onions starts in the garden after danger of a hard freeze.  To keep a seasonal patch of onions going in your garden with little work, simply allow a few plants to mature and set seed then, either scatter the ripe seed by hand or simply allow them to fall where they may.  Green onions do especially well when treated this way.

Allium_cepa_viviparumWhile most onions are true annuals and sometimes biennials, there is a group of onions that are true perennials, including Egyptian (walking) onions and bunching onions.  Bunching onions are started from seed and are prized for their long, sweet stems and their abundance during the long winter months.

Walking and Egyptian onions produce small underground bulbs that are incredibly pungent.  Instead of seeds, these onions produce small top-sets or bulbils at the tips of the flowering stem, which can be planted to start new permanent beds or, if picked while young, lovely “scallion” type onions.  Walking onions can also be propagated by simply dividing the small underground bulbs.

If you decide to grow your own onions, don’t waste the flowers or leaves!  Both add flavor and color to a myriad of raw or lightly cooked dishes, dips, spreads, vinegars and oils.

Of course, one of my favorite things about onions are their medicinal properties.  Simply eating onions on a regular basis can have a positive effect on your overall health.   And because onions and garlic share many of the same chemical constituents, they are often used in similar ways.

Miso and onion soupOne of the best known uses of onion is in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease.   Used alone or with other herbs, onions can aid or ameliorate heart attacks, high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, blood clots, high cholesterol, and angina through their ability to increase blood circulation and viscosity by reducing the amount of fat absorbed into the bloodstream.

Onions also reduce inflammation and fight many types of infections, including fungal infections such as athlete’s foot.  In addition, onions are often used to ease the symptoms of colds and flu such as fever, cough, and bronchial congestion. They also have strong antibiotic and antimicrobial properties, which are used to inhibit or treat respiratory infections, staphylococcus, streptococcus, cholera, bacillus typhus, and dysentery.

Thankfully, onions are easy to use medicinally.  Raw or lightly cooked leaves and bulbs should be consumed whenever possible to promote overall health. A flavorful and healing infusion of onion is easily prepared using vegetable, fish, or poultry broth.  Use as much onion as is palatable.

As a precaution, those persons taking blood-thinning medications or preparing for surgery should talk to their practitioners before using medicinal quantities of onion for circulatory disorders. onion flowers

Although we are still in the depths of winter, now is a good time to start thinking about what types of onions you would like to grow in your garden this spring. With so many incredible, edible varieties of onion the market today, the sky is truly the limit!

Happy Gardening!

© 2013 Jill Henderson

Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.  Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.

THPOKH Cover New Med 3x5 72 dpi jpegThis article was excerpted in part from
The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs

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Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.  Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.

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6 responses to “Garden Time: The Incredible, Edible Onion

  1. I learned a lot from your article Jill. I’m a LOVER of onions and put them in everything it seems.

  2. I also learned a lot from your article. I’m NOT a Lover of Onions, but I’m thinking I should grow 1 or 3 anyway. I grew some elephant garlic last year and didn’t care for it because of the oniony taste, but I do love garlic so I tell myself I’m getting all the benefits of onions by eating lots of garlic. I read where people used to put half an onion in the room with a sick person and it would absorb bacteria and viruses in the air and turn black. Also, a rep from Best Foods said that commercial mayo was fine being out of a refrigerator and that it was the onions in potato salad that caused food poisoning because they absorb bacteria so efficiently.

    • Thank you, Karla. Don’t force yourself to eat onions because they are good for you. Garlic and onions are both members of the genus Allium and have very similar medicinal properties and garlic will give you the same, if not stronger, benefits! Go ahead and grow some ornamental onions for their beautiful butterfly-attracting flowers but grow the garlic for the table! 🙂

      Also, I wanted to thank you for the comments about onions and bacteria because I’ve heard this claim before and I’d like to address it. There are many thoughts as to where this old-wives tale originated or why it has continued for so long. If you will permit me to explain…

      To begin with, onions – like garlic – are naturally antibacterial, antimicrobial and antiseptic: all traits which historically have been used to treat all manner of infectious diseases and infected wounds. For many hundreds of years, onions were the go-to treatment for those suffering from high fever, chest congestion and respiratory infections, such as pneumonia. Bags of raw onions would be sliced and cooked down in a pot until clear and soft. The hot onions would then be wrapped in cloth and placed on the chest as a hot compress.

      It is likely that onions became well known as antibacterial and people would place them around the rooms of sick people in the belief that somehow the onion would absorb the sickness – kind of like warding off vampires with garlic. Because both of these plants were known to be very powerful healers, it’s no wonder some believed that just being in the presence of these herbs would have beneficial actions.

      Secondly, in the last decade we have had an explosion of food borne bacterial infections. At least one of these cases – and maybe more – were attributed to onions contaminated with E-coli. This probably sparked the return of the myth that onions are natural bacterial sponges and hence are prone to ‘carrying’ bacteria. The root of contaminated onions lies squarely with the way today’s commercial food industry grows and packages food. I won’t go into it in detail, but you can read more about food contamination in a previous article about whether to wash or not wash herbs entitled: Harvesting Culinary Herbs: Part I

      I can’t depart from this subject without pointing out the chain of myths that are propagated daily via the internet and from those who would not take a moment to double check their facts. The folks at Best Foods should be ashamed of themselves for continuing to spread false statements that have long been proven to be untrue. As an example, I recently recieved a long and very detailed “fact sheet” on WD-40 that extolled its virtues as a totally harmless and edible natural product! It took a 30 second Google search to debunk this bogus scam, but I wonder how many people were poisoned by consuming WD-40 ater reading this.

      Thank you again for pointing out this lingering myth about onions. The facts are that onions are both nutritious and beneficial in combating bacterial infections. And for those who don’t particularly like onions – or onions don’t like you – skip them and eat garlic instead! 🙂

      • Thanks for clearing that up! I actually saw it on TV. The smell of an onion in the same room as me would make me sick whether I was or not. And thanks for saying that garlic is just as good (or better) for you as onions. I love garlic. 🙂

      • Karla, I’m so glad to know I helped! Now you won’t feel obliged to eat onions just because they’re ‘good for you’! Chow down on that yummy garlic and revel in its goodness! 🙂

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