Perennial Alliums

         It is hard to imagine a civilization without onions

 -Julia Childs

Among all the weird perennial vegetables that seem more like the domain of botanists than cooks (understatement, I know) it’s pleasing to find our well known friends the onion, leek, garlic, have very tame, delicious counterparts that are some of the best perennials.

In many cases, the difference between a perennial and biennial or annual allium is how you grow it. Many of our common alliums people take the time to dig up every year only to replant in a few months, like garlic, are really perennials. They could easily be left in the ground to become a thick clump that returns year after year, each stem becoming thinner, with more emphasis on the tops than the roots.

The opposite is also true for some alliums that are recognized as perennials. When kept as a clump, these get smaller bases and are more for flowers than roots. Dividing these and lining them out, they suddenly grow thick and tender.

Welsh onion (it originated in China, welsh comes from the Anglo Saxon for foreign or strange in that it came from a strange country), Allium fistulosum, has, and is today cultivated as a standard food crop. Go into about any Asian market and you’ll likely find some very large, bulky looking green onions, which are more than likely welsh.

Most green onions sold in US supermarkets are A. fistulosum too. We usually call them bunching onions.

These are usually grown from seed rather than divided from clumps. As gardeners, we can get an edge on efficiency by letting a clump of welsh onions propagate in our perennial beds, dividing them once a year. Line these out with good spacing, they size up nicely in a few months.

Even if left a clump, the real benefit of welsh onions over the green stage of regular onions (Allium cepa) is the season they’re available. Regular onions are day length sensitive, so bulb up and dieback in midsummer. Welsh onions coming up perennial are ready at least a month earlier, if not two. After a short hiatus for flowering and seeding in late spring, the late summer and fall growth is absolutely fantastic.

There is still a small harvest during the flowering time because the flowers are edible, and pretty, and the sideshoots are still tender. The only undesirable part is the hard flowering stem.

Lining them out, there will usually be some first year sprouts that won’t flower and will be tender all the season. Seedlings, likewise, which may turn up if you let the flowers make seed, won’t flower their first year but will nevertheless be picking size within 4-6 months or so of sprouting depending on what size you like.

The only thing dizzying about the fistulosums is their many colors and sizes -large, small, red, white, purplish. I personally grow ‘Ishikura’, which is white, very thick, and very tall. Kitazawa seeds has a very large selection of welsh onions if you want the more exotic types. If you aren’t too particular, most seed companies carry them under bunching onion.

Next up: Egyptian walking onions.

 

6 thoughts on “Perennial Alliums”

  1. It’s Allium fistulosum. The link in the post for Kitazawa seeds takes you to their bunching onion page. They’re quite easy to grow from seed.
    As I mentioned in the post, many supermarkets and asian markets have bunching onions. You could plant some of these and probably get them to start growing. Cut off most of the green tops to take stress off the roots.
    If you try that, I’d love to hear how it goes for you.

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  2. Delighted to see you start a series on alliums. I am obsessed with them this year. In addition to my garlic glut, I’m growing some Welsh onions, a lot of Egyptian walking onions, shallots, potato onions, and am experimenting with perennializing regular onions, or more accurately, managing them in a perennial fashion. So far that’s looking like a winner and has saved me a fair amount of work.
    I’m also looking with great interest at the alliums that have been developed as ornamentals and wondering what they might contribute to the culinary spectrum. I’ll order bulbs this fall and post on how it turns out.
    Several years ago I became unable to garden for a couple of years due to an orthopedic problem, since largely corrected, and I perennialized garlic without intending to, just because I couldn’t dig it in the fall. The result after two years was thick clumps of greens with tiny compressed bulbs, which is when I first learned (duh) that the greens were perfectly good to eat and even delicious.
    From a nutritional standpoint they are powerhouses. But now that I can kneel and stand up again, I’ve returned to dividing them in late summer when they start to die back, so that I can harvest more “normal” garlic.

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  3. Yes, Alliums really are the best perennials and I don’t know why I haven’t covered them a little more already.
    I hope to show the options available with perennial propagation and harvest combined with annual cultivation. The two really complement each other. Have you tried the combination, or fully moved back to annual cultivation of garlic?
    I’m very intrigued with all the species and varieties of Allium Stephen Barstow covers in ’80 plants.’
    I have begun the scavenging and sprouting process and have already found failure. Your post on your attempts are greatly anticipated. Care to just post a preliminary list of what sounds good enough you’ve gone searching for it? I might talk you into growing more!

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