What’s the difference between a scallion and a shallot? Is Elephant garlic really garlic? And, what do you do with Egyptian onions?
The onion family, Alliums, are a confusing but wonderful group of plants. They are easy to grow, reproduce on their own and taste great. For each species, almost the entire plant is edible—from the flowerhead down to the bulb below the soil. Most can be eaten raw, as well as cooked.
Here’s a guide to help you distinguish between Alliums, and hopefully encourage you to plant more of these in your garden.
Note that growing zones are just rough guides. For example, Gwen O’Reilly (author of previous article) has overwintered all of these plants (recommended for Zones 3–5+) in her Zone 2B garden near Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Bunching onion (Allium fistulosum)
Also called scallions, an onion with little or no bulb, long white stems and tender greens. As the name implies, the onions are grown in bunches or planted thickly. Some growers simply plant bulb onions close together, harvest when they’re starting to bulb, and use these instead of true bunching onions.
See also Welsh and Egyptian onions.
Chive (A. schoenoprasum)
Chives are grown for their delicately-flavoured, long, thin, hollow leaves. The flowers are also edible. For a gentle flavour hit and beautiful accent in salads, pull the flowers apart and sprinkle the purple florets over the greens. Garlic chives (A. tuberosum) look and taste similar to standard chives, except that that leaves are flat, rather than hollow, and the flowers are usually white. Chives are perennials (hardy to Zone 3) that will multiply; however, garlic chives are more difficult to grow than regular chives.
Elephant garlic (A. ampeloprasum var ampeloprasum)
Not actually garlic, Elephant garlic is a type of leek. It produces bulbs that look like huge heads of garlic, but have a milder flavour. Plant in the spring for a fall harvest.
Egyptian onion (A. cepa)
Also called walking onions, Egyptian onions look like other bunching onions until they begin a strange form of reproduction. Flowerheads appear, similar to those of bolting onions, and form bulbils. These start growing stems while still atop the mother plant. Eventually the Medusa-like topgrowth becomes too heavy for the stalks to support, and falls to the ground where the new onions can root.
The onions also multiply in the ground. The small bulbs, green stalks, white stems and bulbils are all edible. Egyptian onions are perennials that are hardy to Zone 3 and are often fall-planted.
Garlic (A. sativum)
A bulb that is easy to grow and great to eat (for both its culinary and medicinal attributes). It is valued for the pungent bulbs, though the flowering tops (scapes) of hardneck garlic are also edible.
There are two main groups of garlic. Softneck garlic, which is usually spring planted, often has many small cloves in a head. The garlic can be braided easily. Hardneck garlic can have larger cloves and is usually fall planted. Each clove grows into a head of garlic.
Green garlic refers to young spring garlic, which looks similar to bunching onions. Both the small bulb and stalk are eaten, either cooked or raw.
Leek (A. ampeloprasum var porrum)
These elegant Alliums are often grown in trenches and hilled or mulched, like celery, to blanch as much of the stalk as possible. The plants can be started by seed indoors in late winter (e.g. February) and planted out as soon as the soil can be worked. Summer leeks mature in late summer; winter leeks can be harvested in late fall or winter. Mulched leeks can be dug out of the snow in midwinter or during winter thaws. If left in the ground for a second year, the plants produce beautiful purple seedheads and young leeks at the base of the plant.
Onion (A. cepa) Read about onions in Rooting for Onions.
Potato onion (A. cepa var aggregatum)
A perennial multiplier onion (hardy to Zone 5) that produces bulbs that can be as large as 5–10 cm (2–4 in.) in diameter. Each onion planted produces anywhere from 1–15 bulbs of various sizes. Some growers have noticed that a small onion will produce one large bulb whereas a larger one will produce many small to mediumsized bulbs.
Shallot (A. cepa)
Delicately-flavoured bulbs that store longer than other Alliums. One bulb produces a cluster of shallots. They can be either spring or fall planted, depending on the variety and growing conditions.
Scallion See ‘bunching onions’.
Welsh onion (A. fistulosum var evergreen)
A type of bunching onion that produces greens and thick bulbous white stems. Welsh onions are the first crop to come up in the spring (same time as quackgrass!), and they keep producing greens late in the fall. They are perennial and are hardy in Zones 3+. Each year, clumps grow larger and can be divided for replanting, as well as harvesting.