Forgotten Plants: once prolific in the kitchen gardens of our ancestors, but now so rare that the average person might never have even heard of them. Many of these deserve to find space in our gardens again! This is the third post in the series.
Egyptian Walking Onions. How can you not love a plant with such an interesting name? Although my own walking onion patch is just beginning to thrive, I knew I had to include them as part of the series when I found a bundle drying over the fire in one of the farmhouses that make up our local historical settlement.
In one of those defining “I must really be a gardener” moments, I started frantically searching for a pen and covered my settlement map with notes about the many herbs and plants that they had hanging to dry. (I was happy to see Borage hanging there beside the onions, too!)
History of Egyptian Walking Onions
Although an Egyptian origin might seem obvious, and onions were an important part of Ancient Egyptian culture, there is no record of this particular onion being around at that time — or, in fact, in Egypt at any time. They are called walking onions due to their unique way of replanting themselves; as their heavy top sets fall and then grow into new plants, they literally “walk” across your garden.
I love this interpretation, that, perhaps, the plant got its name because it “walks like an Egyptian.” It is also known by the names “tree onion,” “perennial onion,” and “winter onion.” I do know, from my settlement visit, that at least around here, you would have found these plants growing in a kitchen garden in the early 1800s.
How Does Your Onion Grow?
I purchased 6 topsets to plant in my garden 3 years ago, had 3 survive the winter that year, and have only 2 plants left to create topsets this year, so I would not classify the plant as foolproof (but 3 years ago I was still a pretty newbie gardener, too, so gardener error may have come into play!).
Fall plantings are ideal, but walking onions can be successfully planted throughout the growing season. They are hardy to zone 3 and prefer a sunny location. Once past the first year — when they grow only stalks — they will send up green stalks in the spring, which will form topsets, or mini onions, on the tops. In the fall, the green stalks will die back and the topsets will fall to the ground, becoming the bulbs for next year’s plants.
Harvesting and Cooking
From root to tip, this plant is entirely edible and can be used as you would any onion, although it must be noted that the flavour is much stronger. The green leaves can be cut and used as scallions, and the topsets and bulb itself can replace onions in any dish. The tiny onions are often served pickled and this is starting to gain some popularity among gourmet chefs.
On my visit to the historical settlement, I was told that the onions are good for lowering blood sugar, clearing congestion due to colds, and improving blood pressure.
The green stalks can be harvested at any time, and will grow back throughout the growing season. But be careful not to harvest the stalk with the topset as you will want those to develop into yummy onion bulbs! Once the leaves have yellowed in the fall, both the topsets and onion bulb can be harvested for use. Be sure to leave some to grow new plants in the spring!
As my own onion patch is so small, I have yet to do a lot of cooking with this plant, However, I know I do like the greens sprinkled into soups and salads. As I have recently moved to a new house and had to leave my garden behind, this will be one plant that I will definitely be planting at the new house this fall. Perennial onions outside my back door? Yes, please!
Have you ever grown Egyptian Walking Onions? What are your favourite ways to use them?
...without giving up the foods you love or spending all day in the kitchen!
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