Nodding Wild Onion

Common Name: Nodding Wild Onion, Lady’s leek – The umbel at the top of the leafless stem is bent at the top so that the flowers bend in a  downward nod, probably to enhance the presentation of the blossoms to pollinators.

Nodding Wild Onion in full flower with pollinators at right and lower left approaching

Scientific NameAllium cernuumAllium is the Latin word for garlic, which is one of the notable species of the  “onion” genus. The Latin form evolved from the more ancient Sanskrit word aluka meaning edible root, suggesting the importance of onion-type plants to the earliest hunter-gatherer peoples. Cernuus is probably the most descriptive species name of all time. It means “falling headlong, with the face toward the earth” in Latin.

Potpourri: The onion is one of nature’s most commendable creations. It is also one of its most prolific. There are 2,685 listed species names of which 969 are accepted as singular for the genus Allium ranging from A. aaseae to A. zergericum in a list of plants that is still growing. [1] The onion’s most notable but not universally shared attribute is the hypogeal bulb, which consists of thickened leaf bases that grow radially outward in layers from the stem plate at its base. The bulb shape is metaphor for the prominent domes of Russian architecture. Shallow, fibrous roots grow from the bottom of the plate as anchor to the smooth, linearly veined stalk that grows upward to produce an umbel or other florescence. Onion layers take on the meaning of getting to the heart of the matter by being peeled back. The ultimate onion encomium is attributed to Carl Sandberg,  “Life itself is like an onion; it has a bewildering number of layers. You peel them off one by one, and sometimes you cry.”

The redolence, ubiquity, and edibility of the many onion variants must surely have been noted and exploited by the earliest hominid gatherers supplementing the hunt on which they were dependent for sustainment. The shift from the collection of wild foods to the intentional planting and harvesting of selected cultivars took place over thousands of years in eight principal regions. The onion originated in central Asia and extended across Asia Minor into the Mediterranean region.  By about 3,000 BCE, vegetable cultivation in general and onions in particular was certainly practiced in the Nile River Valley. Egyptian tombs dating from the fist and second dynasties of 3200 to 2780 BCE depict laborers eating them. [2] In Numbers, one of the five books of the Pentateuch, the people of Israel complained to Moses that “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now … there is nothing but this manna to look at.” [3] It is evident that, even then, onions and their more pungent leek and garlic relatives were both memorable, desirable, and even favored over what has been traditionally proclaimed “manna from heaven” which may actually have been a type of desert fungus.

The onions, leeks, and garlic of the Allium genus are similar in form to the grasses in having leaves with parallel veins extending along the longitudinal or blade axis. In the 16th century, it was recognized that these plants were characterized by a single embryonic leaf or cotyledon in their seeds and were called monocotyledons to distinguish them from the majority of flowering or angiosperm plants which are dicotyledon. Monocots and dicots are still in use as broad descriptive terms. Formal taxonomy started with Carolinus Linnaeus in the 18th century as the flood of new species from the Americas overwhelmed any attempt to sort them out according to their Latin descriptions. In that sex producing progeny of the same species was the essence of biology, the number and configuration of identifiable male and female organs offered a reasonable starting point. Linnaeas assigned 30 species to the genus Allium to a grouping named Hexandria monogynia for the six male anthers and the one female pistil. [4] The relationships among the many Allium species were confusing from the start and they were included in the diverse and overly large lily family until the end of the last century.  When the DNA vocabulary code  of nucleobase letters A,C,G, and T was deciphered, an understanding of the real genetic history connecting Egyptian tomb onion sculptures to cultivated fields of shallots and chives became possible.

The genus Allium is taxonomically situated (at least for now) in Asparagales, the largest order of the monocots, in the family Amaryllidaceae with the additional hierarchical categories  of  subfamily Alliodeae and tribe Allieae. However, there are many gaps in  knowledge that remain and a final accounting is years away. One recent scientific paper proposed “six subgenera, 50 sections and subsections for 600–700 species based on a multidisciplinary approach including morphological, anatomical, karyological, serological and numerical investigations as well as studies of life cycles, distribution, ecology and isozyme data.” What may be gleaned from this is that evolution could be too complex to go into unreasonable detail and that broad brush groupings may be better. It is certain that Allium is monophyletic or single ancestor and that there are two geographically distinct centers of diversity from which species radiation occurred, one in central Asia and the other in western North America. It is probable that the “first onion” originated at about the time of the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction in Asia and that the Beringian Land Bridge was the conduit for intercontinental dispersion eastward. The adaptive Allium characteristics that were retained produced a series of herbaceous perennial plants with tunicate or layered bulbs,  narrow leaves emanating from the base, a stalk topped by umbellate flowers, and an aroma nonpareil. The complex chemistry of sulfur is responsible for the lachrymose vapors and distinct taste that can only be described as onion-like. [5] It is interesting to note that the word onion is derived from the Latin unio, meaning oneness…. there is nothing like an onion.

The bulb is composed of overlapping leaf bases anchored by roots

Representative species in the diaspora of the Allium genus as it spread eastward across North America from its western origins include wild (nodding) onion (A. cernuum), wild garlic (A. canadense) and wild leek or ramp (A. tricoccum). They are similar in habitat, preferring woods, thickets and meadows, and in phenology, emerging in spring and early summer growing in clusters convenient for harvest. [6]  The entire plant is edible, including the green stalk as long as it is still relatively young and tender. Most wild food guides prescribe chopping stems and bulbs as an ingredient to salad or boiling the bulbs as either an independent side dish or in combination with broth for soup or meat and vegetables as flavoring. [7]  The bulb that is the essence of the onion is also the repository of the chemical engineering plant that produces its beguiling taste and smell that has been described as “zesty, lusty, assertive, piquant, and distinctive.” It all starts with sulfur in combination with an allyl group, a specific combination of hydrocarbons  (methylene bridge and vinyl group) that is named for the Allium genus.  The resultant organosulfur compounds are diverse and offer “striking physiological activity as well as culinary appeal” that challenge analytical chemists. Depending on the species, 1 to 5 percent of the dry weight of the bulb is comprised of sulfur amino acid secondary metabolites. [8] That these compounds appeal to Homo sapiens is immaterial. They came about to protect onions from insects and other herbaceous animals at the lower end of the food chain.

The medieval medical practitioner Paracelsus is considered the Martin Luther of medicine for his notion that the healing power of nature could be brought to bear in the treatment of disease.[9] Notwithstanding the fact that native peoples have employed local herbs and tonics globally for millennia, his blinding flash of the obvious precipitated a sea change in what had been the ignorance of alchemy in the “civilized” world. One of his contributions was the notion that a poison could become a medicine at a reduced dosage. The sulfur compounds of onions are exemplary. Onion toxins are so successful at chemical warfare in garden trenches that they are planted in intercropping systems to protect vulnerable food crops, taking advantage of the excretions of the bulbs and roots and from the apparently disturbing smell of their leaves. [10] It would certainly not be beyond the perception of Native Americans, to cite just one well documented indigenous group, to note that any plant that kept bugs away would be useful either as a potential medicine, or at least to deal with what can only have been the maddening ordeal of biting flies and sucking ticks endemic to the woods and wetlands.  One widely known ethnobotany database [11] contains over three hundred separate uses for various onion species by widely dispersed tribal groups that range from asthma to scurvy and include being rubbed on the body to protect against insects.

The use of onions as both food and medicine was widespread in Europe by the seventeenth century as espoused by the numerous herbalists then popular. John Gerard wrote that the “juice of onions snuffed up into the nose, purgeth the head, and draweth forth flegmaticke humors,” in addition to providing a cure for baldness, a salve for burns, a treatment for ague, and even to prevent the scourge of rabies after the bite of a mad dog. His culinary admonitions probably reflect a personal distaste for onions that “causeth headache, hurteth the eyes, and maketh a man dim sighted, dulleth the senses, and provoketh overmuch sleep.” [11] Recent research has revealed that onion therapy is not as outlandish as it sounds. Sixteen species of Allium  have been shown to have anti cancer properties. The sulfur and organic compounds interfere with the “formation, growth, differentiation, and metastasis of cancer cells.” [12] The Mediterranean diet is one of the gold standards for a healthy life; that onions are a key component may not be coincidental.

Onion as weed

One of the consequences of any species that has mastered the art of procreation and the science of self defense is overabundance whenever ecological conditions permit. The suburban lawn and garden is the ideal habitat for a member of the Allium genus that has earned the weed sobriquet wherever it gains a foothold. Field Garlic (A. vineale) is a native of Eurasia but has become naturalized globally, especially in North America. It is characterized by numerous hypogeal bulblets, supporting a tuft of leafless flower stalks called scrapes that usually have no flower. It grows in clumps that are similar in appearance to tufts of grass that may escape detection except for a whiff of onion while mowing the lawn. It spreads both by seed, aerial bulblets, and offset bulblets that multiply during the winter like narcissus.  With the bulblets buried about three inches below the surface as both anchor and spreader, field garlic is almost impossible to eradicate without major excavation. [13] If it is of any consolation, the piles of green shoots and clusters of white bulblets are edible once you clean off the fist sized clumps of dirt that come with them.

References:

1. Missouri Botanical Garden Plant List at  http://www.theplantlist.org/tpl/search?q=Allium

2. Warid, W. A. “Vegetables and Vegetable Farming,” Encyclopedia Britannica Macropedia, William and Helen Benton Publishers, Chicago, 1972, Volume 19, pp 43-53.

3. The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Thomas Nelson and Sons, Camden, New Jersey, 1952. Book 4, Chapter 11, Verse 5.

4. Linnaeus, C. Species Plantarum: exhibentes plantas rite cognitas, ad genera relatas, cum differentiis specificis, nominibus trivialibus, synonymis selectis, locis natalibus, secundum systema sexuale digestas. Stockholm: Impensis Laurentii Salvii.  1753.

5. Li, Q. t al “Phylogeny and biogeography of Allium (Amaryllidaceae: Allieae) based on nuclear ribosomal internal transcribed spacer and chloroplast rps16 sequences, focusing on the inclusion of species endemic to China” Annals of Botany 21 October 2010 Volume 106 (5) pp 709–733.

6. Niering, W. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1998, pp 591-594.

7. Elias, T. and Dykeman, P. Edible Wild Plants, Sterling Publishing Company, New York, 1990, pp 58-61.

8. Block, E. “The Organosulfur Chemistry of the Genus Allium – Implications for the Organic Chemistry of Sulfur” Angewandte Chemie International Edition English 1992, 31, pp 1135-1178 http://ramsey1.chem.uic.edu/chem494/downloads-2/files/Block%201992.pdf    

9. Needham, W. The Compleat Ambler, Outskirts Press, 2020, pp 52-53.

10. Debra, K. and Misheck D. “Onion (Allium cepa) and garlic (Allium sativum) as pest control  intercrops in cabbage based intercrop systems in Zimbabwe” IOSR Journal of Agriculture and Veterinary Science March 2014 Volume 7, Issue 2 Ver. II, pp 13-1

11. http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=allium&page=6

12. Gerard, J.  Herball or General History of Plantes, London, 1633 pp 176-178.

13. Asemani, Y. et al “Allium vegetables for possible future of cancer treatment” Phytotherapy Research December 2019 Volume 33(12) pp 3019-3039.

14. https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/allium-vineale/

One thought on “Nodding Wild Onion

  1. Thanks so much. What a great article. Love the snark regarding post-Renaissance “discovery” of the onion’s ubiquitous properties.

    Like

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