All About Heirloom Onion Varieties

Heirloom onion varieties add diversity to both garden and palate.

| November/December 2012

Onions are one of the stalwarts of the kitchen. They are found in a wide range of cuisines and dishes, although they aren’t as common in the kitchen garden, in part because of their low prices at the supermarket. Heirloom onion varieties, however, can be difficult to get at the local grocery, so more gardeners and cooks are turning to growing their own, drawn by the rich, unique flavors and textures that heirloom onions offer.

Onion cultivation

Onions are widely cultivated members of the Allium, or onion, genus. This genus comprises 600 to 800 different species; botanists differ on the exact number. The perennial is known for its odiferous members that are largely found in the temperate Northern Hemisphere, though some species occur as far south as Brazil, Chile and Africa.

Typically the genus produces a single bulb, as in the case of onions; an aggregate of bulbs, such as in shallots; relatively clustered on a rhizome (root), such as chives; or loosely borne on the end of stolons, as in wild leeks (ramps).

Most, if not all, members of this genus are edible, although only a relatively small number of its members are cultivated for food. These include onion, garlic, shallots, potato onions, leeks, chives, garlic chives, curly chives, scallions (typically Welsh onions or Japanese bunching onions), or top-setting or Egyptian walking onions.

About 30 species have been used for food, with half this number cultivated. Given the edibility and the taste characteristics present, there are many underexploited culinary possibilities for the home gardener. For more on growing onions in your garden, see Growing Onions the Easy Way.

Additional species are cultivated as ornamentals in both perennial borders and alpine gardens.

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