Egyptian Onion: The Most Shared Veggie in the Garden
Harvest season is the most fun of all! One of the easiest to harvest and share are my Egyptian onions.
By Steffie Littlefield
[This article first appeared in The Gateway Gardener September 2019.]
Harvest season is the most fun of all! One of the easiest to harvest and share are my Egyptian onions. First, I should tell you how these were added to my garden. Many years ago when I was president of Gateway to Gardening, now Gateway Greening, we were on the community garden tour in the city of St Louis and a darling lady was surprised that I knew what they were. I told her that I had seen them in the Thomas Jefferson Garden at Monticello and hoped someday to purchase some for myself. She immediately handed me some bulblets “to start a patch” in my garden. They have thrived ever since and being perennial they help a busy gardener like me.
Egyptian onions are also known as walking onions, top onions, tree onions, winter onions and perennials onions. They are one of the first plants to emerge in the spring. The leaves poke up through the soil like little green spikes and shoot toward the sky despite the frost or snow. The blue-green leaves are round and hollow and will grow up to 3 feet in height. At the end of a leaf stalk, at the top of the plant, a cluster of bulblets will begin to grow. These bulblets are also known as “bulbils” or “sets.” Every Egyptian onion plant will produce a cluster of sets at the top, hence the name, “top onion,” meaning they are top-setting onions. When harvesting the bulbs in the ground make sure to leave some of the newer bulbs that are growing from the current years sets that have fallen to the ground. Each plant will produce clusters of 4-6 bulblets to multiple the number plants in the garden quickly.
They serve many uses during the year. In early summer I can cut the tops for fresh green onions for salads, and when the tomatoes start to ripen they are essential to my homemade salsa. In August and September I harvest the enlarged bulbs as I would shallots. Cleaned and refrigerated or fresh frozen, they keep for several months to use in soups or sautés. You can even clean and dry the green tops and freeze them for future uses liked braised meat dishes.
My favorite way to use them currently is to pickle them for Thanksgiving dinner! I use a regular dill pickle recipe with pickling spices, a thin slice of hot red pepper, dill flowers, garlic, salt, sugar and apple cider vinegar. They are packed into the jar fresh but allowed to cook in the canner for 15 minutes. They remain crisp, but the seasonings are released by the heat to meld with the mild onion flavor. A perfect addition to any relish tray. They were even served at the Field Dinner at Edg-Clif Winery.
When visitors tour my garden at Edg-Clif and ask about the unusual onions, I love to tell the story of how they came to me and then I do the same and give then a cluster of bulbets to plant in their own garden. This in truly the most shared plant in my garden, from dishes we share at the dinner table, to pickles as gifts and as sets given to other gardeners to continue its legacy in the future.
Steffie Litlefield is a St. Louis area horticulturist and garden designer. She is part owner of Edg-Clif Winery in Potosi, MO, and has been a regular contributor of articles to The Gateway Gardener since 2005.