Sunday, January 17, 2016

Plant Story--the Indominable Onion


It seems like onions have always been part of our diet.

The common onion, Allium cepa, is a bulb related to lilies, in the amaryllis family, Amaryllidaceae.  (DNA evidence keeps moving the onions around, from the lily family to their own family and now with amaryllis). 

The common onion is not known in the wild. That is, it is only found in gardens or where a garden was very obviously abandoned. Since it must have started as a wild plant, "not found in the wild" might mean the wild forms went extinct or that the cultivated onion is enough changed from its wild ancestors to be considered different, or the cultivated onion is a hybrid that does not occur in nature.

onions growin
Onions in the garden

If you can't find wild Allium cepa, it is hard to know where it is native. Today the common onion is found ALL over the world--170 countries grow it for domestic use--so modern distributions are no help. Archaeology and the patterns of relationship suggest onions are from somewhere in Asia, but there is no concensus as to exactly where.

The story is complicated by the existence of 260-850 species in the genus Allium, native all over the Northern Hemisphere. While Allium cepa is grown and sold more than any of the other Allium, lots of people grow or gather other onion species. Names obscure some of the relationships: a oniony wild plant is often called a wild onion (Allium textile is the prairie wild onion of Colorado), but Allium porrum are leeks, Allium sativum garlic, and Allium schoenoprasum chives.

From 5,000 years ago, at minimum, people have grown onions, Allium cepa. They are known from archaeological sites going back that far in both Babylon and Egypt.

They have been a staple of the diet for probably even longer. Eaten, onions provided food and water. Both leaves and bulbs could be eaten. They grew easily in most soils and most climates.  The bulbs stored very well, fresh or dried.


Not only that, onions have medicinal value. They inihibit bacteria, for example, so putting them on a cut was a wise move. But they also soothed blisters, bruises, and insect stings.

"Those suffering from coughs, asthma and constrictions in the chest should eat boiled onions or onions baked under the embers, served with sugar and a little fresh butter," writes the author of the Tacunium Sanitatis, a health manual from medieval Europe.

The complete list of things treated with onions is very long! It includes sore throats, colds and flu; skin inflammations; restoring circulation in frozen feet; reducing lethargy and invigorating a poor appetite; clearing out the head; healing the ear of both pain and noise, to name a few.

They had enough obvious medical value that in much of the Old World, onions came to be a universal remedy. Some of that comes down to us as advice such as from Cambridgeshire, England: "Eat an onion every day before breakfast and all the doctors might ride on one horse."

white onions

From prehistoric times, onions were seen as protective, both by repelling evil (for example keeping away snakes) and also taking it into themselves (using modern terminology, we'd say absorbing germs). Traditional English households kept an onion, cut in half, hanging near the doorway to protect the inhabitants. It is widely repeated that the inhabitants of God's Providence House in Chester escaped the plague because cut onions were laid at the door to the building. The Oxford Dictionary of Plant-Lore points out that the last plague outbreak in Chester was in 1648 but that God's Providence House was not built until 1652. Nevertheless, the story bolstered onions' reputation for protecting people.


The ancient uses read as superstition, but modern, controlled experiments have shown onions to be effective in controlling atherosclerosis and countering loss of appetite. Onion juice has definite anti-bacterial action.

Some of the best-documented information on onions in the ancient world is from Egypt. There, onions were important enough that wages and taxes were sometimes paid in onions.

But beyond that, Egyptians wound the onion in a complex of religious and philosophical beliefs. Onions were healing and protective and freshened the breath. That brought them to be heavily used with the dead: to preserve the body, but also to connect to the afterlife and protect the person as they cross over from this world to the next. (See much more: link and link )


Egyptians saw a symbol (or microcosm) of eternity in the spherical shape and concentric rings of onions.

Rings of the onion.
Cultures from the Hindus to the Egyptians to 17th century Europe considered the onion an aphrodisiac. In ancient Egypt that meant that, revered though onions were, priests could not eat them. In France it led to offering newlywed couples onion soup the morning after their wedding.

I ate onions raw in the garden as a grade-school girl. And yet, I find it hard to visualize the Egyptian workers on the pyramids at their lunch break, eating raw onions as if they were apples. Some of that is a function of the type of onion. I have always worked with yellow onions, but ancient Egypt favored a milder, white onion. To test this I took a big bite out of a red (sweet, Spanish) onion yesterday. Wow! it was sharp! I lasted for one more bite but then I'd had enough. Raw onions eaten like apples aren't for me.

Cooked, onions are quite different from raw, much less sharp-tasting, and in fact, quite sweet.

yellow onions

Consider this 18th century poem of Johnathan Swift's, appropriate today:

                     Come, follow me by the smell,
                         Here are delicate onions to sell 
                         I promise to use you well.
                        They make the blood warmer,
                        You'll feed like a farmer;
               For this is every cook's opinion,
               No savory dish without an onion
               But, lest your kissing should be spoil'd,
               Your onions must be thoroughly boil'd:
                        Or else you may spare
                        Your mistress a share,
               The secret will never be known:
                       She cannot discover
                       The breath of her lover,
              But think it as sweet as her own.

Share onions!

Comments and corrections welcome.

Agaravante, M. The Onion's Role in Ancient Egypt. San Diego Examiner. Dec. 1, 2013. Accessed 1/4/16.
Culpeper, N. 1652. Culpeper's Complete Herbal and The English Physician. Onion. link
Tacunium Sanitatis, published as The Four Seasons of the House of Cerruti. 1983. Arnoldo Mondadori Ed.  Original Italy 13th C.
Harrison, L. 2011. A potted history of vegetables. Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut. Domestic Onion Production. Accessed 1/7/16
Stevens, P. F. (2001 onwards). Angiosperm Phylogeny Website. Version 12, July 2012 [and more or less continuously updated since]." Phylogeny website. Amaryllidaceae: Allieae. 
Swift, J. 1853. The poetical works of Jonathan Swift. Onions. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. link Swift lived 1667-1745.
Vickery, R. 1995. Oxford Dictionary of Plant-Lore. Oxford U. Press, Oxford.

Kathy Keeler
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1 comment:

  1. one of the best things about living in France is the onions!