by Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
Growing up in the heart of Cajun and Creole country, I learned early on that no dish is truly complete unless it begins with a mess of sweet and savory onions. Of course, when I began to garden it was only natural to want to grow my own. But I soon found out that good cooking onions aren’t necessarily easy to grow. They come with very specific needs, including the perfect conditions for long-term storage, that I just couldn’t seem to provide. For years I limited myself to the growing of onion chives and leeks to satisfy my need for easy-to-grow oniony flavor. And then I found Egyptian walking onions.
Like all onions, walking onions belong to the Alliaceae (formerly Lilliaceae) family of plants. This huge family consists of 30 genera and nearly 700 species. Of those, the genus Allium contains all of the wild and cultivated species of edible onions and garlic in the world. To help make sense of the burgeoning number and types of edible alliums, they are broken down into groups based on their form and reproductive style.
The Cepa group contains almost all of the major agricultural sweet and storage types. Cepa onions produce a single large bulb and reproduce from seed. The Aggregatum group is dominated by onions that produce small bulbs, which readily divide and rarely produce seed. Often referred to as multiplier onions, this group includes shallots and potato onions. The Fistulosum group produces non-bulbing clumps of elongated fleshy stems and reproduces via seed or division. Fistulosum onions include Welsh and Japanese bunching onions.
Amidst the various pure strains of onion are a few interesting hybrids, including Egyptian walking onions – also known simply as walking onions and as tree- or top-setting onions. For many years it was believed that the walking onion group was a hybrid of A. cepa and A. proliferum, but recent genetic testing confirms that these unusual onions were actually created from a natural cross between A. cepa and A. fistulosum – the bunching onions. Despite the recent discovery, botanists have not yet changed the botanical name of walking onions, which is currently Allium ×proliferum.
Walking onions have some pretty special traits that other onions do not have. Walking onions are perennial and produce small bulbs and/or elongated fleshy stems, depending on the cultivar and how they are grown. They do not flower or set seed. Instead, walking onions produce vegetatively through bulbils (also known as bulblets) that form atop an elongated stem where flowers would normally grow. As the bulbils reach maturity, their size and weight pull the tall flowering stem to the ground where the bulbils then take root; slowly “walking” away, season by season, from the parent plant.
I love my Egyptian walking onions. They are so hardy that I dare you to try to kill them through neglect. They are heat and drought tolerant and don’t require special soil to grow well. In fact, when we first got our latest batch, we didn’t have time to amend the soil and they wound up in solid red, greasy clay that stays wet all winter and becomes hard as a rock in the dog days of summer.
Walking onions are perennials that bear large, tender, oniony leaves year-round with only two exceptions. The first is during the deepest, coldest part of winter after a round of bone chilling temps in the single digits. Otherwise, winter damage is limited to the tips of the leaves, which is easily trimmed off.
The second exception is when the plant goes dormant in late summer, some months after the bulbils have completely ripened. This is a natural period of dormancy for perennial onions and chives that is short-lived. As soon as the first cool breeze suggests fall is on the way, an abundance of new leafy growth appears.
You can take advantage of this natural dormancy by harvesting the bulbils for kitchen use or for replanting in the fall or spring. Depending on the cultivar, walking onions often produce a small swollen bulb. If you use the bulbils and plant them several inches apart, as you would for cepa (storage) onions, the bulb will usually reach several inches in diameter. When the plants go dormant in the summer, dig them up, remove the leafy portion and cure them for a few days before storing them as you would regular storage onions.
I don’t usually go to the trouble of trying to harvest storable bulbs, because aside from the one, sometimes two, brief dormant period, I can pull or dig the entire plant from the ground any time of the year and get beautiful, thick-stemmed, full-flavored onions that can be eaten fresh, cooked, or grilled.
Just keep in mind that in winter, especially after the temps reach freezing, the underground portion of walking onions are not nearly as big as they are in summer and the first few layers of flesh often become mushy as the plant prepares for division, which will happen in early spring. I deal with that little set back by simply pulling the bottom two or three leaves down towards the root. This quickly and effectively removes the soft bits to reveal a solid, firm, white “bunching” type onion roughly 8” long and the diameter of your thumb.
My only advice for those seeking to grow walking onions, particularly Egyptian walking onions, is to try before you buy. Some cultivars are extremely and unpleasantly strong in flavor. Your best bet is to buy from a reputable nursery or ask a friend for some bulbils or a division.
If you want to learn more about growing and using onions, check out these great articles from the Show Me Oz archives:
I hope you’ll try walking onions as a perennial alternative, or a nice addition to regular storage onions. I think you’ll be more than happy you did!
© 2015 Jill Henderson Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.
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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 is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.