Alliums are a genus of plants that includes garden favorites such as onions and garlic, as well as some less-often planted varieties like leeks, shallots, and Egyptian onions. Onions and their relatives have been both grown and harvested wild for thousands of years. They played a significant role in the diets of early peoples in part because they are easily identifiable by their pungent odor. Wild alliums are abundant here in North America. The city of Chicago even takes its name from a word used by local Native Americans meaning “place of wild garlic.”
One popular native Noth Ameirican allium is that ramp (A. tricoccum), wild leeks that grow throughout Appalachia. The foot-high or so ramp looks just like a small leek but has a more garlicky flavor. In mountain lore, the ramp is seen as a panacea, much like ginseng, and claims are made about everything from its cancer-fighting properties to its ability to prevent common colds. Many festivals are held each spring to celebrate their return. Richwood, West Virginia claims to be the ramp capital of the world, and they’ve had a ramp festival every spring for the last 72 years. The two-day ramp festival in Cosby, Tennessee, is 60 years old, and attracts thousands every year.
Ramps aren’t the only variety of alliums celebrate for their healing properties. The domesticated onions we consume are the only plants known to contain prostaglandins, chemicals that are known to lower blood pressure.
Most backyard gardeners get their alliums from a local source in the form of “sets.” They thrive best when planted in a sunny location in well-drained soil. And, since onions usually encounter few problems with pests, a bountiful harvest typically ensues. The only problem with buying local sets is that you’re somewhat limited in your choice of varieties. If you prefer to try more varieties than those available locally, you can also order seeds. You can plant onion seed directly into the garden as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring. Even if there are frosts after you’ve planted, your seeds or plants will be fine. The resulting onions will also keep better than onions from sets. It’s a little too late for planting onion seed this year, but plenty early enough to start thinking about getting a bed ready for garlic. Garlic cloves are planted six inches apart in October here in the Northeast and harvested the following July.
Alliums, at least the culinary kind, seem to prefer full sun. There are some wonderful alliums that grow in shady places and are favored for their beauty rather than their taste. One of these varieties is the Ramson (A. ursinum), a plant that grows to about 18 inches and has white flowers. It will grow and multiply in areas of very little light. Lavendar globe (A. senescens) is another spectacular shade-loving allium that has pendulous lilac-colored flowers at the end of 18-30 inch stems. It blossoms in mid-summer. A third, a North American native called the nodding onion (A. cernuum) can blossom with as little as two hours of direct sun per day.
With over 600 hundred different varieties of alliums, they should claim an important place in any garden, whether you’re just growing a few onions for summer salads or planning a major landscaping project.