With the possible exception of ancient Polynesia, I can’t think of any culture that doesn’t use onions and garlic in one form or another. Onions grow well all over the world, having probably originated in Asia and then spread through settlement and trade. They were considered a symbol of eternal life by the Egyptians and have been grown by humans for over 5,000 years. Since there were many places where alliums grew wild, odds are high that even ancient hunter-gatherers included onions in their diet. The bunching onion or scallion group is probably typical of the ancient wild onion varieties and will slowly grow large clumps quite well without human intervention. Not surprisingly, with such a history, varieties are numerous. Here are a few examples in the various groups.
- Australian Brown – this is a typical yellow storage onion, but the flavor is much better than anything you’ll find at the grocery. It was introduced by W. Atlas Burpee in 1897. Nice big bulbs and stores well. Intermediate type.
- Southport White Globe – a long-day classic from Connecticut. Southport, Connecticut, was a major onion-growing area during Colonial times and produced a number of excellent onions. Mild-flavored and one of the best white keeping onions (which means for maybe three months). A Civil War era heirloom. Also known as Silver Ball and White Rocca.
- Southport Yellow Globe – like its sister above, this one came from Connecticut. It’s equally fine-flavored, but stronger, and is a very good keeper. This one – actually any bulb onion – can be used for scallions at about 65 days.
- Red Wethersfield – another Connecticut export, but from the town of Wethersfield. These can grow quite large and have excellent flavor. Unlike most red onions, this one keeps well. It’s quite old, tracing back to the 1700s.
- Texas Early Grano – Texas was one of the first states to really develop short-day onions. The original Grano (grano means wheat in Spanish) seed stock came from Spain. In 1933, the Texas Agricultural Experimental Station began an onion breeding program that produced not only this onion but the supersweet varieties such as the Granex group: Vidalia, Maui Maui and NoonDay. Technically, Vidalia onions can only be called that if they are grown in certain counties in Georgia. The soil in these areas has a low sulfur content, which is why the onions taste sweet. You can grow them but they may not have the same flavor.
- Walla Walla Sweet – this onion’s ancestors came from Corsica with a French soldier named Peter Pieri in the late 1800s. Although extremely tasty, it will not keep; you’ll be lucky if it lasts a month in storage. It’s best left in the garden and harvested as needed, at least until it goes to seed. Long day type. Great sandwich onion.
Bunching Onions and Scallions
- He Shi Ko – a Japanese heirloom, it’s perennial and does not form a bulb. This is the sort of onion you’ll see in a grocery store as green onions, but this one has much better flavor. You may also sometimes hear it called a Welsh onion. Overwinters well. It will readily go to seed the next spring and the seed is easy to grow. These will also grow fairly thick stalks if overwintered and can be used in place of leeks.
- Evergreen Hardy White is another perennial, very hardy, cold tolerant and will overwinter well. A Nebuka or non-bulbing onion of Japanese origin, it has been grown since at least the late 1800s.
- Tokyo Long White is another Japanese variety and a good choice for those with hot summers. I haven’t been able to dig up anything on its history, although it’s typically listed as an heirloom.
- Deep Purple – a bit of a misnomer – is really more red or magenta. Some “red” onion varieties have streaks or tints and the colors are dependent on growing conditions or temperatures. This one stays highly colored in all conditions. Not an heirloom, as it’s a newer variety, but it is open-pollinated.
- London Flag Leek – developed from a French variety called Gros-Court, which was notable for a very thick base. This was the most commonly-grown leek in the US for most of the 19th century. Very good flavor.
- Blue de Solaise Leek – this 19th century French heirloom tastes good and is extremely hardy. Large stalks turn blue-violet when the weather gets cold. William Woys Weaver says of this beautiful leek: “Never forget, the eye eats first.”
- Elephant Garlic – this is actually a leek variety. It does have more of a mild garlic flavor, however. It produces lots of scapes – the seed stalks – but will not grow from seed, only from bulbs. Most gardeners cut off the scapes and use them in cooking or freeze them. The plant grows a single clove the first year and multiple cloves the second year. Nichols Garden Nursery popularized it shortly after discovering it in the gardens of Czechoslovakian immigrants in 1941.
- King Richard is an open-pollinated variety that is spring grown and matures in about 75 days. Unlike many other leeks, it does not overwinter well. It has a long shank, which means more of the white part that is generally used in recipes. Some leeks will form a sort-of bulb at the end; King Richard is not one of them.
- Giant Musselburgh, also known as Scotch Flag (probably because London Flag is a close rel ative) was developed in Scotland and first released sometime in the early 1800s. This is a big leek, sometimes three inches in diameter, with a mild flavor. Although large, they remain tender. It overwinters very well.
- Jaune du Poitou was described by the famous French seed house of Vilmorin-Andrieux in 1856. William Woys Weaver brought back seeds after a trip to Alsace, France.
- German Red Garlic – German immigrants brought this garlic to the US in the 18th century. It is actually much older, probably tracing back to medieval Europe. A rocambole or hardneck garlic, it may grow up to six feet tall. Wonderful flavor and stores extremely well
- .Inchelium Red Garlic – this is a softneck, but it stores well, which is a little unusual in a softneck. It was discovered on the Coleville Indian Reservation in Washington. William Woys Weaver calls it one of the best heirloom American garlics. The flavor gets a little stronger as it ages.
- Spanish Roja – this is a very popular hardneck garlic that stores four to six months. The cloves are large and it peels easily. The flavor has been variously described as spicy, rich, complex, hot and strong. It needs cold winters to do well.
- California White – the classic grocery store garlic. Although snobby gourmets look down their noses at this one (much as wine gourmets do with “unfashionable” wines) there’s really nothing wrong with it. Well-grown in good soil, it’s an excellent garlic with a decent taste and stores well. It’s also one of the fastest, cheapest ways you can get some garlic to grow and is readily available year-round.
- Purple Stripe – a group that includes such cultivars as Belarus, Chesnok Red and Persian Star, purple stripe varieties are probably the oldest of the garlics. From a genetic standpoint they are considered to be the closest to the ancient original garlic species, boasting very complex flavors that range from mild to incredibly pungent. Most come from harsh environments in Eastern Europe and Russia with intensely cold winters. Marbled purple stripe garlic, a sub group, includes Bogatyr, Brown Tempest, Metechi and Siberian.
Similar to and related to onions, shallots are actually a separate species (allium ascalonium or allium cepa, depending on which source you consult). They grow in clusters like garlic but are shaped more like scallions, sometimes with a torpedo shape. Grown from seeds or bulbs, they will perennialize in many gardens. Probably native to the Middle East, shallots have a flavor that is typically milder than that of regular onions. Good varieties include Griselle or French Gray, Prisma, Yellow, Pikant (very long storage life), Zebrune (a French shallot also known as Cuisse de Poulet du Poitou or “leg of chicken”) and Lorient.