You’ll never be without that vital ingredient for a soup or salad if you grow Egyptian walking onions, an entertaining addition to the vegetable bed
The Egyptian walking onion is a smallholder’s plant – which is a polite way of saying that it is untidy, difficult to harvest and an acquired taste.
On the plus side, it is perennial, provides a crop for the kitchen all year round, stores easily and is one of the hardiest plants you can grow. It is also an amusing curiosity.
Scientific text books list this ancient crop as Allium x proliferum and it is prolific in a unique way – it grows its new generation of baby onions at the top of its stalks, where the flowers ought to be.
At the top of a 3ft hollow leaf stalk, the walking onion develops an apple-sized topset of papery bulbs, like tiny shallots. These mature and turn purplish-red during summer, shedding their paper covering and sending out small roots and shoots of their own, until the plant is carrying a lump of vegetable life high above the bed. Then the stem dies and breaks, the lump comes crashing to earth and the bulbils break free and scatter. If they hit good soil, they root and start the process again. In a year or two, you’ll have Egyptian walking onions all over.
As the plants stumble onwards, you might, according to many gardeners, find yourself with an embarrassment of onions. There will be green onion shoots or scallions in late winter, picked as they punch their way up through the snow. There will be side bulbs developed a month or two later alongside the mother bulb, just like more familiar spring onions on the supermarket shelf. And there will be those aerial bulblets from the “flower head” in summer. They can be pickled or frozen for winter soups and casseroles.
If you ask anyone who grows Egyptian walking onions what they do with them, there is one answer: “We give them away! Everybody, and their children, just loves them.”
As the onions tumble their way across your vegetable patch, you will soon understand the “walking” part of their name. It is less clear why they are called Egyptian. Certainly the Ancient Egyptians loved onions. They believed the multi-layered shape and the way in which the plants grew new generations afforded them religious status. Onions were placed beside mummies in tombs and in the eye-sockets of dead pharaohs. The distinctive shape of the walking onion plant, however, does not appear anywhere in their art.
Experts on garden plants and their domestic history tend to say “Central Asia” when they mean “I don’t know where this plant comes from.” The walking onion is certainly tough enough to have originated as a hybrid in that region of bitterly cold winters and hot summers. It is remarkably adaptable, thriving from Newfoundland – which stands alongside the Faroes as my yardstick for a place where almost nothing but rhubarb will grow – to New Zealand.
A form of walking onion named Kiwi, incidentally, is listed by one British nurseryman (www.poyntzfieldherbs.co.uk).
I am told it is milder in flavour and might be worth trying if you find the commonly available type a bit too strong.
The flavour of walking onions varies with origin and season. Offset bulbs taken in summer have been compared to ramsons or wild garlic, which is certainly strong. We have patches of ramsons in our woods and if trampled the plants smell powerful enough to make your eyes water with sulphuric acid. However, the early-season greens of the walking onion are agreed to be pleasantly mild.
Over the years, British smallholders have imported envelopes stuffed with little bulbils of the walking onion from North American growers. Each of these has been proclaimed by its importer to be the ultimate, perfected mild variety, but none seems to have survived by name in the marketplace. Today, if you want to buy walking onions you have to get on to eBay and find someone who is unloading surplus topsets. Suppliers come and go, and these onions do not seem to be listed consistently by any of the major nurserymen. When you do locate them, they are usually quite cheap, typically “a fiver for a handful of bulbs, post paid”.
Once you have established a mother bulb, which “fruits” in its second year, it is reliably perennial. Either the original or its ring of offshoots will continue to send up shoots each summer, which will be topped with little bulbs by the dozen. And there will always be something in the garden (or the freezer) that will add a little home-grown tang to your soups and stews.