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Edible Heirloom Alliums

Make every savory dish a little bit tastier by exploring the flavors offered by these edible bulbs.

| Winter 2016-2017

  • Alliums come in a variety of edible forms, many of them heirloom cultivars with long histories.
    Photo by istock/circleps
  • 'Tropeana Lunga' onions originated in Tropea, Italy.
    Photo courtesy
  • 'I'itoi' is a multiplier onion that produces clumps of small, mild bulbs good for cooking or eating raw.
    Photo courtesy
  • 'Zebrune' shallots have an elongated shape.
    Photo courtesy
  • All types of shallots are sweeter and milder than onions.
    Photo by stocksy/Alicia Bock
  • 'Giant Musselburgh' leeks prefer cooler temperatures.
    Photo courtesy
  • 'Chesnok Red' hardneck garlic bulbs are easy to peel.
    Photo courtesy

Onions, garlic, and their kin are delicious, versatile staples of cooking and eating that are easy to grow in any garden. We tend to take these pungent plants for granted because they’ve been a staple in dishes around the world for thousands of years. (Be sure to check out our Roasted Garlic and Onion Soup recipe.) Allium species number in the hundreds, and include many ornamentals — think giant purple globe-shaped blooms held aloft by sturdy stems. Here, though, we’ll focus on the flavorful garden vegetables with edible bulbs, stems, or leaves.

Heirloom Onions

You’ll often see onions listed for sale as “long-day,” “short-day,” or “intermediate.” Knowing your day length (the amount of hours of sunlight in a day) will determine which type will form the best bulbs in your geographical location. Long-day onions are best for colder, northern climates, and require a day length of 14 or more hours for bulbs to form. These onions are planted in spring. Short-day onions require a day length of 11 to 13 hours and are generally grown in warm, southern climates. They may be planted in fall and will grow through the frost-free winter months. (Most growers consider 36 degrees latitude to be the dividing line between long-day and short-day onions.) Intermediate (also called day-neutral) onions require 13 to 14 hours of daylight and can perform in nearly any type of climate.

Onions can be grown from seed or from a group of small bulbs, known as a set. Most heirloom cultivars are available as seeds. If you live in an area that isn’t frost-free, you’ll want to start your onion seeds indoors 10 to 12 weeks before hardening off the seedlings and transplanting them into warm soil.

‘I’itoi’ is a multiplier onion that produces many small bulbs in a clump (pictured below, right). It was brought to the Colorado basin in the late 1600s by Jesuit missionaries. The young greens pack a bit of heat, while the bulbs are mild and good for both cooking and eating raw.

‘Red Welsh’ is an extremely hardy bunching onion, grown for its large greens and white stem. Bunching onions do not produce bulbs. ‘Red Welsh’ is Asian in origin and was brought to England in the 1500s.

‘Tropeana Lunga’ is an intermediate onion originally from Tropea, Italy. Its elongated, reddish-purple bulb (pictured below, left) is widely used in Mediterranean cooking.

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