A few years ago a friend gave me an Egyptian onion to add to my garden. I honestly didn’t know what to do with it, so I planted it among the perennials and waited to see what it did. After watching it grow and develop I decided to do a little research. And I’m sure glad I did – now we’re enjoying these onions in the kitchen!
Here’s what I’ve learned:
Native to Pakistan and India, but later adopted by Egypt, the Egyptian onion (Allium cepa var. proliferum) is a unique and unusual member of the onion family. The Egyptians believed that the strong fragrance would protect them, keep them free from disease and awaken their dead. Etchings of the plant are found in Egyptian tomb drawings as far back as 3,000 BC, illustrating their reverence of its perceived power.
For home gardeners, it is a perennial vegetable that provides interest and edibles from early spring right through to fall frost. As soon as the scent of spring is in the air, green shoots emerge without regard for any lingering snow and do not stop sprouting until reaching their full 2 to 3 foot height.
Called a tree onion because of the small bulbils (also known as topsets or sets) that form on its tall stem and a walking onion due to its distinctive propagation method, the Egyptian onion is one of the first plants to awaken each spring.
As the round, hollow onion stalks thicken and grow they can be snipped and eaten, similar to chives, but if left alone will develop small white flowers that by midsummer begin to fade as tiny, curled leaves and numerous small onions, or topsets, begin to grow at the stalk tip. New leaves will rise out of these topsets, which in turn produce further small onions, or bulbils at their tip (hence, the tree-like look of the tree onion name). As the weight of the onions overwhelm the stalk, it bows to the ground, and the young onions lay in the soil, root and form a new plant just inches away, almost as if stepping, or walking away from the mother plant. Gardeners can leave a few topsets on the plant each year to increase the overall onion yield as they randomly drop, or cut the onions from the stalk and plant in a preferred area. The Egyptian onion also forms numerous bulbils at ground level that can be removed without hurting the plant, providing more onions for the cook and more plants for the gardener.
The underground bulbs multiply each growing season and require dividing every few years. When planting both bulb divisions and the small topsets, avoid beds that have had recent onion crops, to help reduce the risk of transferring any pests or diseases to the young plants that may have been left behind by the previous tenants.
This cool-season crop prefers a well-drained site, high in organic matter with a pH ranging from 6.2 to 6.8. Easily grown in full sun or part shade, the Egyptian onion will sprout to 3 feet high and spread up to 2 feet wide at maturity. Best planted in the spring or fall, the Egyptian onion will provide years of fresh chive-like greens and dozens of shallot size onions all season long. Frost tolerant, Egyptian onions grow in plant hardiness zones 4 through 10 and will survive in zone 3 with a good layer of mulch for protection over the winter. Plant bulbs 1 inch deep, spaced 12 inches apart and keep them well watered; regular, even moisture will provide higher, healthy yields, and a pleasant, mild tasting onion.