There are a huge variety of tasty, garden-worthy plants in the genus best known for the humble brown-skinned onion
My garden is awash with onions this year. Not the brown- or red-skinned cooking onions that are the beginning of any good recipe (or are you a garlic‑first sort?), but every other type: ornamental onions, wild onions, strange onions, onions that think they are garlic.
Allium is a large genus: there are 500 species, mostly found in the northern hemisphere, and we have been eating them for a long, long time. There are many worth eating, the obvious being onions (Allium cepa), leeks (A. ampeloprasum), garlic (A. sativum) and shallots (A. cepa, aggregatum group), but other, less well‑known species are tasty, garden-worthy plants.
Part of the problem with my overrun allium garden is that I wasn’t around to deadhead the garlic chives (A. tuberosum); now, they have self‑seeded everywhere. Garlic chives, also known as Chinese chives, have been cultivated for centuries in Asia. All parts are used and they have a delicate, mild garlic flavour that can be used raw or cooked. The unopened flower buds are good salted as a garlicky caper substitute, while soaking them in sesame oil as the base of a salad dressing is a brilliant suggestion from Joy Larkcom’s book Oriental Vegetables (it works very well for Asian slaw and cold noodles, too).
Still, if you don’t eat the flowers, they will take over. When young and strand-like, they can be hoed off easily, but slightly larger and you will have to fork them out. As they age, the plants produce a thick rhizome from which fibrous roots emerge; they become anchored to their home.
Another species, A. chinense, is also referred to as Chinese chives, Chinese onion or Chinese scallion, or in Japanese as rakkyo. It grows like a chive; the bright-green leaves are hollow, but more sharply angled than chives. They also die back during their dormant period in midsummer and flower in autumn once they have grown back. The striking flowers are pinkish-purple to lavender. Below ground, they grow a bulb that has reddish-brown skin and pink flesh. They don’t tend to get big until their third season, when they can be harvested and eaten like a mild shallot. You sometimes find the bulbs for sale in oriental supermarkets. Plant them in pots in free-draining compost in spring or summer and they will start to grow in autumn; they can be harvested the following year or left to bulk up. They don’t do well with competition, so make sure they are grown in full sun.
Finally, there is Hooker’s onion (A. hookeri), which I sourced from Paul Barney of Edulis Nursery in Berkshire. He brought it back from south-east Asia and has named a clone, Zorami, after his daughter (which to my mind is very cool – who wants a rose when you could have an onion named after you?). This is another perennial where all parts are edible, the wide, fleshy leaves used as an onion substitute, but Barney suggests it is worth growing for its roots, which are white, fleshy and make for very good eating. Zorami is a particularly good clone, because it repeat flowers from June to October, which, among other things, makes for very happy bees.
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