Confessions of an Onion Addict (cont)
By: Jack Ruttle
The most widely used allium in China and Japan is A. fistulosum, sold in America in seed packets under the name Japanese hunching onion. Once established, the plant is perennial and divides abundantly to produce a steady crop of scallion-type onions that can be harvested nearly year-round. About the only time you don't harvest it, Swenson told me, is in late summer when the old stems are dying and new ones forming. The plant is quite winter hardy and widely adapted.
Its flavor is very mild and pleasant. Swenson regards it as indispensable for the well-stocked kitchen garden. Besides multiplying in the ground, the hunching onion produces beautiful flower heads followed by a generous crop of seed. Plant the seed in either fall or spring.
The Egyptian onion, which isn't from Egypt at all, is a bit of a mystery plant. It's also known as a multiplier, walking onion, winter onion, and top onion. Swenson explains that this top onion (named for the small onion sets that grow atop the stalk in early summer) is a cross between the Japanese hunching onion and a strain of the common onion, A. cepa. There are a great number of varieties, which appear to be most common on the Indian subcontinent. He theorizes that they migrated to Europe with the Gypsies, a misnomer for the Romany people. Hence the name Egyptian. These onions are common today from China to western Europe.
The leaves of many Egyptian onions are very winter hardy. Some people plant the sets deep to create long white scallions. Many strains have skin so tough that the scallions must be peeled to reveal tender white centers. Other kinds will produce bulbs up to two inches across. Many top onions are very strong flavored and some Swenson regards inedible. His favorite is a strain called 'McCullar's White', which is on the small side and relatively mild and sweet.
The garlic chive, A. tuberosum, is another of Swenson's favorites from the Orient. In America it is best known as an ornamental that flowers profusely at summer's end. The wide flat leaves are handsome and each clump produces a thick burst of shining white flowers that attract a merry host of bees and wasps.
In Japan, China, and Mongolia, garlic chives are a big cash crop. Because they flower so late, they can be cut all season. The flat, mild-tasting leaves are cut and tied into little bunches two to three times each year. In Swenson's view the plant's only drawback is that it seeds so freely it can become a weed if it's not deadheaded.
There's a small hunching onion from China that Swenson has high hopes for. A. chinense sometimes appears canned in Oriental groceries as pickled shallots. At one time it was grown on the West Coast by Chinese market gardeners. Swenson's plants came from Japan, south of Tokyo, but have proved perfectly hardy in the Chicago area. The small plant has fine, grasslike leaves. The bulbs and stems, which are the edible portions, divide prolifically and are best eaten raw like scallions. Swenson plans to increase the plant and would like to see it introduced to cultivation in this country.
Swenson's list of edible alliums goes on and on. He has several varieties of common purple-flowered chives, A. schoenoprasum, as well as a white-flowered variety that, he tells me, grows wild all around the northern hemisphere. He grows and is fascinated by some of the onions harvested by Native Americans: A. canadense, the nodding prairie onion (A. cernuum) and ramps (A. tricoccum). And he's enthusiastic about the eating quality of A. nutans, another plant that is best known here as an ornamental. A close relative of garlic chives, it has flat leaves of mild flavor and sends up attractive red-purple flower stalks in early summer. Even A. giganteum, perhaps the most spectacular ornamental onion, is used as food in its native range, Swenson tells me--a tempting notion, but at $3.50 to $6.50 a bulb it's going to be a while before I cut any into my ratatouille.
The collection Swenson has built in his suburban backyard is truly a national resource. What began as a vegetable garden has, over a decade, evolved into a combination germplasm repository and plant introduction station. It may be modest in size, but size often has little to do with impact. Seeds (and corms) are small but contain an irresistible power. Swenson's enthusiasm for the lowly onion carries that same impact. Cloudy texts in foreign languages and red tape barely slow him down. There's a lot of good eating in the world of alliums, and thanks to Swenson and his collaborators we're all a bit more likely to get a taste of it.
Jack Ruttle is a former senior editor at National Gardening.
Photography by National Gardening Association, Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association (planting shallots), and Charlie Nardozzi/National Gardening Association (leeks)