Onions and Other Pungent Lilies

The bulbous onion and its numerous relatives belong to the Lily family. Some of these alliums are distinctly ornamental; a few others, notably garlic, leek, Welsh onion, and chive, are common vegetables. All of the edible forms have related flavors and odors that are due principally to a volatile, irritating substance.

Our word "onion" comes from the Middle English unyun, from the French oignon, which came in turn from the Latin unio, meaning "onion." Ancient names for this plant in Sanskrit, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin are apparently unrelated, indicating widespread culture of onions from prehistoric times.

Onions from Mid-Asia

The common onion (Allium cepa), leek, and garlic originated in middle Asia, with secondary centers of development and distribution in western Asia and the Mediterranean lands. The Welsh onion is believed to be of Chinese origin. The word "Welsh" here is a translation of the German 'walsch', both meaning "foreign," and does not refer specifically to Wales but to the distant origins of the plant.

Onions were used extensively by the ancient Egyptians, as shown by drawings and inscriptions on their monuments. The Bible states how, during the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness, they longed for the onions, leeks, and garlic they had had in Egypt.

In the first century many varieties of onion were known: long, round, red, yellow, white, strong, and mild kinds. For a time in the Middle Ages it appears that the onion was less popular than leek and garlic, while now the reverse is true.

The onion was introduced by the Spanish into the West Indies soon after their discovery. From there it soon spread to all parts of the Americas. Onions were grown by the earliest colonists and soon afterward by the Indians.

The Welsh onion (A. fistulosum) never forms a rounded bulb-only one to several long white scallions. This form is most popular in the Orient, but is grown almost everywhere. In Japan it is often incorrectly called "Japanese leek."

One form of onion, the so-called Egyptian tree onion, or top onion, produces "sets" (tiny bulbs) at the top of the stalk instead of flowers and seeds.

The leek (A. porrum), like the Welsh onion, forms only a cylindrical instead of a rounded bulb. The leaf of the leek, however, is flattened and solid, while the leaf of the onion is cylindrical and hollow.

Our word "leek" comes from the Anglo-Saxon leac. The Romans called it porrum, that term being retained in its present Latin name. It has been used for food from prehistoric times.

In the first century the Romans considered that the best leeks came from Egypt, where they had been known in earliest Biblical times. The Emperor Nero is reported to have been nicknamed Porrophagus because of his inordinate appetite for leeks. He imagined that frequent eating of leeks improved his voice!

In the 6th century the Welsh won a victory over the Saxons and attributed their success to the leeks they wore to distinguish themselves in battle.

Leeks have been common all over Europe for as long as we have records of food plants. In America, by 1775, they were cultivated by the Indians as well as the colonists.

Garlic (A. sativum) has a long history that parallels that of the onion and leek. The word "garlic" comes from the Anglo-Saxon garleac (gar, meaning "spear" or "lance," and leac meaning "leek"). Homer wrote of it in the ninth century B.C.

Garlic Eaten for Strength, Courage

The Romans disliked the strong flavor and odor of garlic-as do many Americans-but fed it to their laborers to make them strong and to their soldiers to make them courageous. It is supposed to have been introduced into China in the first or second century B.C., and references to it there occur from the 15th century onward. Europeans, especially those of the countries touching the Mediterranean, have used it commonly for two thousand years and more. Most Americans use it sparingly.

The first reference to garlic in America is the statement that Cortes fed on it in Mexico. Doubtless it had been introduced into the West Indies or Central America earlier by the Spanish, for it is not native to Mexico. The Indians in Mexico, Peru, and what is now the United States all took up its culture promptly and liked it better than any of the other root or bulb crops from Europe.

Chive (A. schoenoprasum) is an Old World plant now found wild in modern Italy and Greece. It is believed to be native to the eastern Mediterranean. The word "chive" is an Old French form of the French cive, derived from the Latin cepa, meaning "onion."

Chive has been grown for hundreds of years in European gardens and in the British Isles.

The plant has attractive blue flowers, but they produce no seed. It is propagated by planting the bulbs, which increase in number each year, forming dense clumps.