Ancient Alliums


We are nearing the end of August and in ‘farm time’ that means fall is just around the corner.  Omens of the cold are appearing..  Pumpkins, winter squash, and onions that we seeded in early spring are curing in the greenhouse and garlic planted last fall is hanging from the rafters of the barn, foreshadowing meals that, in a time before mass food transport, would have taken us through the winter.  ‘Winter-squash’ will keep in a cool, dry place all winter getting sweeter and sweeter as they sit long after summer squash have been plowed into the ground.  Two important members of the allium family, onions and garlic, are also traditional winter foods as they store well in their crinkly husks.  A critical look at the Thanksgiving meal gives us a good idea of what veggies stand the test of time; sweet potatoes, potatoes, pumpkins and other winter squash, root vegetables, onions, and garlic feature prominently as does turkey, which will keep all winter if well-fed and watered.

onion+seed

When shaken, dry onion flower heads release thousands of seeds!

Certified onion seed also comes in seed packets of course.

Certified onion seed also comes in seed packets of course.

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Of all of these winter foods, onions and garlic might be the most divisive members of Thanksgiving dinner.  Alliums, a family of plants that my horticulture dictionary informs me are ‘strongly odorous,’ contain volatile Sulfuric compounds that some love and some love to hate.  Though the greek root of the word means ‘to avoid,’ alliums have long been appreciated for their taste, medicinal value, and mystical powers. In addition to keeping vampires out of the share room, garlic makes a great salve for rashes, a bug repellent, and even a herbicide and pesticide.  The ‘stinking rose’ along with its equally stinky family members onions, leeks, and scallions originated in the Northern Hemisphere and continue to flourish here.  Their wild cousins, ramps, onion grass, and wild garlic, bloom in Bellair’s fields throughout the summer.  Keep a lookout for their characteristic flower heads as you walk around the farm in the early summer!

Spindly wild garlic a.k.a. wild onion heads.  A clove of wild garlic lies beneath the soil.

Spindly wild garlic a.k.a. wild onion heads. A clove of wild garlic lies beneath the soil.

Another wild cousin, ramps or wild leeks.

Another wild cousin, ramps or wild leeks.

Onion grass is rampant in Virginia!  Harvest it from your yard and put it into eggs in the morning if you're feeling adventurous.

Onion grass is rampant in Virginia, no pun intended! Harvest it from your yard and put it into eggs in the morning if you’re feeling adventurous.

But in every family and indeed every plant family there is a bad seed.  Death Camas, a flowering bulbous meadow-dweller related to the lily, are easily mistaken for edible wild onions.  Some speculate that Lewis and Clarke and their men were mistakenly fed death camas instead of the edible camas root by the Nez Perce.  In her blog ‘American Heroes’ Frances Hunter quotes from Clarke’s travel log, “I am verry Sick to day and puke which relive me.”  But fear not!  Death camas only grow in the Western United States so you can eat as many wild onions as you like at Bellair.

 

Even if you are not looking to go on a foraging mission we will be providing plenty of onions and garlic in the coming weeks to satisfy your allium cravings!  Keep them dry and cool and you will have alliums well past thanskgiving.

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