The Allure of Alliums

Alliums like garlic and onions are very important vegetables; without them, food and medicine wouldn’t be what they are today.

By Jim Long


Spring 2016

Garlic chives

Native to the Himalayas, garlic chives are known for their mild garlic and chive flavors and beautiful flowers, which attract several kinds of small butterflies. Be sure to harvest before the seeds ripen, or they may spread into a large patch in your garden.

Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com

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I’m convinced the world would simply quit turning if it weren’t for the alliums. At the very least, food as we know it would cease to exist. Throughout history, the onion family has held enormous importance in everyday life. There are reportedly over 500 species of alliums, including garden onions (Allium cepa L.), Scallions (Allium fistulosum), garlic (Allium sativum), Leeks (Allium porrum L.), Chives (Allium schoenoprasum L.) , garlic chives (Allium tuberosum), Shallots (Allium cepa var. aggregatum) and many, many more.

According to Sylvia Windle Humphrey in her book, A Matter of Taste, 1965, onions were so important as medicine in the Civil War that General Ulysses S. Grant declared, “I will not move my army without onions.” They were such a vital battlefield wound medicine as well as useful in intestinal problems that he refused to move his soldiers into battle without a supply. Two days later he reportedly received three train car loads of onions.

Alliums have always been a natural part of the human diet. In ancient Egypt, Pharaohs were entombed with garlic and onions to ensure health and good meals in the afterlife. The slaves who built the pyramids were fed garlic in abundance to prevent debilitating conditions and give strength and endurance.

Onions and garlic as we know them today are believed to come originally from central Asia. They were grown in Chinese gardens for around the past 5000 years and are recorded nearly that far back in India, and there is documented evidence that the Sumerians were cultivating onions as early as 2500 B.C.

The early Romans introduced the alliums family to Europe when they carried them on journeys to their provinces in England and Germany. Onions were used in cooking, but were also highly regarded as medicine for curing vision, inducing sleep, healing mouth sores, dog bites, toothaches and other ailments. Modern research has shown that allicin, which is in all members of the alliums family in varying degrees (but most prominently in onions and garlic) gives the plant its antiseptic, antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties. As recently as World War II, Russian doctors were still using onions and garlic for wound treatment.

The first Pilgrims arriving on the Mayflower brought onions with them, and as soon as land could be cleared, the first bulb onions were planted. To the colonists’ surprise they learned strains of North American wild onions were abundant and Native Americans were familiar with their use in cooking and medicine.


Growing Alliums in Your Garden

Plants in the onion family are some of the easiest crops to grow. Garlic should be planted in late summer in tilled soil. Push the individual garlic clove into the ground so just the tip is showing. Keep them weeded. By summer of the following year, the garlic will be ready to harvest.

For growing onions and leeks you have several choices: seed — which is planted in early spring or even the previous fall in moderate climates — or by bulbs or plants. Plant as early in the spring as ground can be worked, and apply bone meal and compost, working it into the soil. Just like garlic, the onion bulb is planted just barely below the soil level. For leek or onion plants, plant the bulb/root end in the soil about an inch, leaving the green top upright above ground. Keeping alliums free of weeds insures better harvests.

Chives and garlic chives are perennials, meaning they come back every year. Plant seed or potted plants in a sunny, well-drained location and you can enjoy your chives and garlic chives plants for a lifetime.


Jim Long is an author of more than two dozen books on herbs, gardening, and historical subjects.  He’s a frequent lecturer at conferences and professional organizations throughout the United States. Visit www.LongCreekHerbs.com.