Text and photographs are © by Ellen Spector Platt & Ellen Zachos, all rights reserved.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

wild about wild onions

I have nothing against garlic. I like garlic. But I ADORE onions, and wild onions (Allium canadense) are my favorites. The taste is strong and kind of combines onion and garlic (to my refined palate) so it's a much loved ingredient in my kitchen. This year I'm determined to harvest enough wild onion to get through the entire year; yesterday I picked and dried the first of several batches.

Wild onion is considered a weed by most people, along with its cousin, wild garlic (Allium vineale). Wild onion has blue-gray, solid stems that grow to about 18" tall. All parts of the plant have a distinctively onion-y smell, so there's no chance of poisoning yourself with a similar-looking plant, as long as you have a sense of smell.

(photo courtesy of Purdue University)

Wild onion is easy to harvest. Bulbs are usually single, shallow rooted, and pull out of the ground easily, leaving only the smallest hole behind. (Wild garlic tends to grow in clumps that have a more desperate grip on the surrounding soil.)

Because wild onion bulbs usually grow singly, they are relatively easy to clean. A brief rinse is all it takes. (Wild garlic tends to have numerous small bulbs that hold soil tightly between each bulblet. )

Now is the perfect time to harvest wild onion, before the plant sends up a stalk that produces flowers and bulblets (which shatter and propagate themselves). Producing the stalk draws on energy stored in the bulb and decreases its size.

What are the ethics of foraging a crop that results in the death of said crop? Any time the edible part of a plant is the root or bulb, you're not leaving anything behind to regrow for next year when you harvest. Of course you wouldn't do it on private property without asking, and in general, wild onion is considered a pest plant...plenty of people spend considerable time and money trying to eradicate it from lawns and fields. I don't know how the City of New York feels about it, and I'm not sure I WANT to know, since ignorance is bliss (although no excuse in a court of law). But I'd be interested in your opinions...


Frank said...

Well, it's a native plant but as far as I can tell its not threatened. If only a few are harvesting, it seems doubtful that you would get every one. If you were, your return to the same spot next year would prove futile. So leave a few clumps to add to those you missed unintentionally.

I suspect NYC cannot police such things. It's better if you do it mindfully, no?

By the way, is there a fibrous sheath on the Allium canadense?

Marie said...

OK. Now I am confused. Did I pick and eat wild onions or wild garlic?

Ellen Zachos said...

Marie, I went back and looked at your wild garlic post and it DOES look like what I know as wild onion. Do you remember if the stems were hollow (A. viniale) or not (A. canadense)? That's a key i.d. characteristic. Also, were they growing singly (onion) or in clumps (garlic). I guess the most important thing is that they were delicious.

Frank, I like your philosophy, probably because it mirrors my own. I always leave plenty behind for other foragers and propagation. And yes, there was indeed a fibrous sheath around the bulb.

SaraGardens said...

Ooh, YUM. I'm wondering whether my ramps planting will ever be enough... and whether they can be dried - what a great idea. I wish I could get past "eat it now, it's yummy" to your long-term preserving perspective.

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