Egyptian walking onions

Walkabout, topset, Egyptian walking onions, and many other common names are used for Allium cepa var. proliferum. It really is one of the best perennial alliums. I just get annoyed with its lack of a descent name. Even the botanical name, in my opinion, doesn’t fit, and is quite misleading.

You see “cepa” is the species name of our common storage onion. This species makes seed and enlarged bulbs when there is longer daylength. Egyptian walking onion does neither. They pinned Egyptian walking onions with this name due to its suspected parentage of Allium cepa and Allium fistulosum -the welsh onion I covered in the Perennial Alliums post. It really should be named after its welsh parentage, because it is essentially a welsh onion that makes bulbs atop the stem.

These bulbs are produced in early summer in place of flowers and seed. Once they get large and heavy, the plant leans over and plants the bulbs a distance from the parent clump, providing the walking tendency for which it is (sometimes) named.

These bulblets are quite the convenience. They can be divided and planted like onion sets of common storage onions, which in both cases is a very reliable method propagation. The bulblets keep very well, so can be stored and planted at any time you like.

For instance, a friend of mine has grown this onion for years, planting the bulblets under a grid of wire to keep them upright and neat. He gets a load of bulblets this way, leaving some for next year’s production, and many more which he plants in the bottom of coffee cans in his greenhouse every week over winter. Filling these with soil as the onions grow, he harvests very long white stems for fresh eating all through the winter. (He eats them on Sunday’s specifically -a very organized guy who is now plugging along through his nineties).

Such blanching is really a novelty though. If left outside, these grow long into the winter and can be picked frozen with little damage to the consistency. Yet another common name for this onion in my local area is winter onion.

Besides multiplying by bulblets the plants will multiply into a thick clump of thinner onions. These grow thicker and taller when lined out with space between each plant.

I prefer to just stick to the bulblets though, as they can easily be spaced without the hassle of digging up clumps and waiting for them to establish themselves again. They grow just as thick and healthy as the divisions.

In an ideal world, you leave permanent clumps in the perennial beds to harvest bulblets and never bother with division. And the benefits don’t stop there.

Below, the onion on the right is an Egyptian walking onion. On the left is an ‘Ishikura’ welsh onion.

One less desirable characteristic Egytian walking onions share with welsh onions is the hard stem put up in late spring to hold the bulblets. I consider this inedible -similar to eating onion woodchips.

To get around this problem, just save back the bulblets from the late summer harvest and plant in mid spring.  Without the fall and winter growth, the resulting green onions won’t put up bulblets or hard stem, remaining edible all the first year.

Aside from the nifty system, perhaps the best edible bonus of this onion is the bulblets themselves. They are really little onions, and can be used for pearl onions, or anything for which you would use a normal onion.

Peeling can be tedious. If form isn’t important, I crush the bulbs with the broad side of my knife before peeling. This removes the peel quickly as one piece, rather than several strips. Tanya over at lovely greens uses a garlic press for the task. See her post on this allium here.

For large batches, the trick is to throw them in boiling water for a few minutes -not cooking the inside of the onion, but just enough to pull the skin away from the inner onion. In this case peeling is a breeze.

I know several people who don’t even keep this onion for eating, but for looks, which are eye catching.

They make crazy green spears coming out of a white wrapper, some varieties having greenish, some whitish, some red bulblets at the base. At times these bulbils make a set of bulblets and on more rare occasions a set of bulblets on top of that. Even without all the gymnastics, they are still pretty.

Thankfully this onion is pretty popular as perennial alliums go, so can easily be found online (this link is for a greenhouse local to me that sells the bulbils through Amazon) or very likely as plants hiding in a local flower bed. I recommend you look there first because it’s very likely you’ll find some.

They take care of themselves such that it’s more work to remove them than to lose them. Just get some and stick them somewhere and they will multiply waiting for you to start using them. It will be good to let them have the head start because once you start using them, you use a lot.

11 thoughts on “Egyptian walking onions”

  1. You’ve got a great crop there! This is the first year mine have done well, I have now found them a place they like – warm, sunny, sheltered, good soft soil (before they were in quite hard stony, unimproved clay. The difference is quite remarkable, they are like a different plant.

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    1. There is quite a difference between surviving and thriving, true. I appreciate how great a span that is for perennials compared to annuals.

      I just transplanted my first Egyptian walking onions into the food forest this spring, so the pictures are of my mother’s established patch in her kitchen garden. It’s extremely protected there up against the west side of a white house and trees blocking the southern winds so they get a head start over many less protected patches.

      For just being transplanted in late April, mine still made a lot of bulblets, although smaller than the ones pictured. I intend spreading then around the food forest to get more bulblet producing patches established then grow out the annually harvested plants from the annual beds I wrote about in December.

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  2. I had both walking onions and Welsh onions in my old garden, but – for various reasons – they haven’t made it into the new garden yet. I’m working on it! The Welsh onion flowers were real bee magnets. One of the reasons people grow Welsh onions (here in the UK) is that they can be harvested pretty much all year – the only exception being when they’re in flower and too full of bees to chop down!

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  3. I don’t know how I missed this when you posted it. What wonderful information. You have given the answer to my nagging frustration about not having good green onions in late summer and fall. I never thought of trying to save the top sets and plant them in late spring. As soon as I read this, I ordered some more top sets to store over the winter so that I can try this.
    I expanded my perennial weed patch quite a bit this year because I finally got milkweed, pokeweed, burdock, and Turkish rocket established. No doubt this sounds bizarre to gardeners elsewhere, but we don’t have them in the desert southwest, and it has taken me this long to get any to germinate and grow. So I’m looking forward to seeing what I have in the spring.

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    1. There is no better compliment to my work than someone saying it answered a question for them. I would love to hear how it goes in your climate.

      Glad you are expanding the perennial repetoire. I have never gone through the trouble of preparing either milkweed or pokeweed because I have so many other things available at the same time. They are everywhere around here, so maybe I should give it a try -if only to appreciate their unique flavors. I’m told their very good.

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      1. I like both milkweed and pokeweed a lot. I do disagree with the usual advice to boil milkweed in several changes of water. Forager Sam Thayer has written about the perception that milkweed is bitter, and pointed out that it is not and that most people who say so are confusing dogsbane shoots with milkweed shoots. True milkweed just requires blanching or steaming. Pokeweed is different, and does need to be boiled in two changes of water to remove toxins, but I think it is delicious. Or at least, I think I think that. Since it doesn’t grow here, I haven’t tasted it in 25 years.
        But there is no question that green alliums of all kinds are just about my favorite vegetables to work with. I am extremely interested by your neighbors technique of growing them in deep containers to produce a long white section. I think I will try a pot full of those in my sunroom and see how they come out.
        Again, what a useful and interesting post. Please keep writing!

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