Did you know that onions were used as part of the mummification process in ancient Egypt?
Or that they are supposed to make hair grow back when you start to go bald?
Onions – a Bit of History
Like many other early civilisations, the Egyptians saw the onion as a symbol of eternity, due to its ring within a ring layers of flesh. As such, onions would be placed in the thorax, pelvis and near the ears and eyes during the mummification process.
In Egypt, the cultivation of the onion can be traced back to 3500BC. Records of onions growing in Chinese gardens go further back, to 5000 BC.
Pliny the Elder recorded six different varieties which were grown in the Roman Empire including in Pompeii gardens. During excavations archaeological evidence supported his writing, finding onion bulb shaped cavities in the gardens.
Pliny also wrote of the onion’s medicinal properties. They were thought to cure dysentery, heal mouth sores and dog bites and even reverse baldness. If any of you wish to try this, mix onion juice with honey and rub onto a bald patch vigorously. I haven’t tried this, so can’t guarantee its efficacy!
Modern science agrees with the excellent antiseptic, antibacterial and diuretic properties of onions. One of the traditional recipes for relieving coughs, colds and earache was to eat a roasted onion or drink onion juice. Onions also have anti-inflammatory qualities, which may explain why the Olympic athletes of Ancient Greece would rub onion juice on their bodies before competing.
Onions – a Bit of Botany
The onion is a member of the Allium genus, which has over 500 species.
Allium cepa, also known as the bulb onion or common onion, is the most widely grown and eaten member of the family. It is the cultivated, rather than the wild, onion and is commonly considered to have about four of the wild species in its ancestry.
We tend to grow it as an annual vegetable, and harvest the bulb for food. However, the onion is actually a bi-ennial plant. If left unharvested, a stem develops from the centre of the bulb over winter, to flower the following year. If you want to collect and grow your own onion seeds you should let at least one of your onion plants overwinter and flower. The seeds are triangular shaped, and glossy black.
Grow your own Onions
Seeds or Sets?
You can grow onions from seed or by planting ‘sets’. Using seed is cheaper and gives you a wider selection of varieties to choose from. Many heritage varieties of onion are only available as seed. However, onion sets are easier for the beginner gardener, and for those who have less space to sow and grow on the seeds. Onion sets are more tolerant of heavier soils.
This can happen in the autumn or in the early spring.
Sowing overwintering onions will give you an earlier crop the following year.
If your soil gets very waterlogged over the winter, you may be better sowing the onion seeds in a raised vegetable bed.
If you’re sowing the seeds in the spring, then covering the soil with cloches or horticultural fleece over winter, ensures the seeds have a warm soil, which aids germination.
Planting in rows is the most usual method of cultivation where onions are grown in the ground. This works rather well as they can be interplanted with a longer maturing crop; one of the brassicas, for example, brussels sprouts. The sprouts would be planted the ‘correct’ distance apart and the onions would line up between two rows of them.
Where your soil is not as free draining or as fine a tilth as onions prefer, it may be advisable to grow them in raised beds. This has the added advantage of closer spacing of your crop, so you’ll harvest more onions from the same area.
Planting onion sets
Most people plant onion sets in the spring. In a cold spring, you can start your onion sets off in a cold frame, cool greenhouse or cloche. Popping them into egg boxes means there is no root disturbance when you come to plant out the onions in the ground.
Planting the sets in the autumn will give you an earlier crop, but may require cover in a wet winter. The warm damp soil of an autumn planting does encourage good root to establishment.
When you plant the onions, leave just the tips exposed. If the sets do get dug up by birds, cats, dogs or foxes then just press them back into the soil.
Mulching the soil around the young onion plant will help to keep moisture and warmth in, and reduce watering requirements. They are fairly easy maintenance given the right start.
Perversely, onions don’t like to be too wet, so they do need a free draining soil. If you have a heavy clay, it may be advisable to grow them in a raised bed.
As they grow and mature, scrape the mulch away so the bulb is exposed to the sun.
Normally, it is members of the onion, or allium family, who benefit other plants. for example, roses and strawberries. However, growing parsley near them is said to help keep the onion fly away.
Harvesting Onions in July and August
Watch out for the leaves of onions turning yellow – this means they are nearly ready to harvest.
The crop should be harvested after the tops have bent over naturally and the leaves have begun to dry out and rustle.
After lifting, the onions should be spread out in the sun to dry. In wet summers, you’ll need to dry them under cover; otherwise they can be left on the earth to dry.
Storing your onions in a rope is traditional and easy to do.
- Use either untreated natural string or strong raffia
- Tie two together by their dried leaves to form the base
- Build up the rope one onion after another upwards so they lightly touch
- Finish with a firm knot at the top, leaving enough string to make a loop to hang the ‘rope’ on
- Hang in a frost free potting shed, outhouse or garage
Hanging them means air is able to circulate around the onions keeping them fresher; and they’re easy for you to cut and use when needed.
As for ways of eating your onions after you’ve grown them in the garden, the methods are numerous; they are such an adaptable and essential vegetable!