If you do any cooking you have probably seen reference to one of these onion family members. Maybe you have dispensed with fancy and just used an onion in the recipe but these plants do have different tastes and are botanically different from one another also. They are good cool weather garden crops and some are quite expensive to buy so experimenting with a few in the home garden might be a great idea. Here’s how to tell the difference between these delightful and delicious plants.
Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum), are an old world vegetable. While the Irish identify with shamrocks ( and potatoes) the Welsh use the leek on their national emblem. The leek has a mild taste, somewhat like onion with a subtle twist. It can be eaten fresh, it’s crisp and sweeter than onion but most often leeks are used in soups and other dishes. Leeks do not store well and are generally used fresh.
The leek does not form a bulb, rather the edible part consists of tightly packed leaf sheaths, which are white or pale green and form a cylindrical shape just above the roots. The upper or green portion of the leek leaf is flatter and broader than an onion leaf. Usually soil is pushed up around the base of leek plants to make the edible portion paler. They can be harvested at any stage but are generally left to grow to an inch or so in diameter.
Leeks can be started from seed but if you can, try to find small transplants. In the US this can be difficult so you may want to start your own seed inside 8 weeks before the last frost in spring or in flats outside in late summer for transplanting. They need at least 6 hours of sun and well drained, fertile, organic soil that is slightly acidic. Leeks can be planted as an early spring or fall crop as they do not like hot weather. You can plant leeks in the spring quite early, when there are still light frosts. They can be left in the garden for a long time in the fall for a gradual harvest but harvest before a freeze.
Leek maturity ranges from 70-100 days, pick a variety that will be mature either before hot weather in the spring or a hard freeze in the fall in your area. Giant Musselburgh is a heritage leek, Autumn Giant, Carentan, Megaton and Lancelot are a few other varieties. You may have to search for seed. Territorial Seed, www.territorialSeed.com and Seeds of Change www.rareseeds.com are two sources.
Shallots, ((Allium cepa var. aggregatum) are not to be confused with scallions. They are separate onion sub-species with different flavors and growing styles. You will sometimes see them advertised as potato onions or multiplier onions. Unlike scallions, shallots form small bulbs or cloves each with its own “papery” skin in a cluster at the bottom of the plant. The shallot leaf is like an onion leaf, narrow and hollow.
Shallots originally came from South East Asia where they are still widely used in cooking but they also became popular in France and the Netherlands as cooking staples. Different countries favor different bulb colors of shallots from reddish colored to grayish. Shallots have a sweet, mild onion flavor and most good cooks will tell you that there is a difference in flavor of a dish cooked with shallots or onions. Shallots have more calories than onions and slicing them will make you cry just as much as an onion does.
Shallots like the same conditions as leeks, spring or fall growing times. At least 6 hours of sun and fertile, well- drained soil. Keep them well watered to develop the sweetest taste. They also withstand light frosts. Shallots are ready for harvest when the leaves turn yellow.
Shallots are almost always planted as sets, (small bulbs) - which are more expensive than onion sets. You can however, save sets for next seasons or next year’s planting as shallots store as well as onions in a cool dry place. Plant sets 6-8 inches apart. Either plant in early spring for early summer harvest or mid- summer for fall harvest. While some shallots that are left in the ground may over winter and return in the spring it is better to save some sets inside through the winter for spring planting.
Shallot seed is also available. Seed is generally sown outside where the plants are to be grown in early spring and thinned to about 6 inches apart through the summer until you harvest a single “clove” in the fall. Some of those cloves could be saved for spring planting. Each clove or set planted usually will return you 4 or more shallots in a cluster.
Many shallots are sold just by color, such as gray or red shallots. You can also look for Ambition, Sante, Camelot, or French Red. Shallots can be found at Gurneys www.gurneys.com or Territorial Seed, www.territorialSeed.com
Here is where there definitely is some confusion. Some people consider scallions to be a separate variety of onion- a non- bulbing onion ( Allium fistulosum). Others say scallions are simply immature onions of any type, ( Allium cepa) eaten before they make a bulb. The fact is both types can be called scallions and any onion can be eaten at an immature stage as a “green onion”. Scallions are generally eaten fresh although they can be cooked as well as any onion.
Some scallions look like thin leeks, others have a small bulb. Scallions can be red, white or yellow in stem and bulb color. Scallions taste like onions and there are variations in the strength of the onion flavor depending on the variety. Scallion leaves are long, narrow and hollow. You can eat a scallion any time the stem is large enough for you.
Scallions can be planted from seed or sets or even from small plants, although that seems rather a waste of time if you are planning to harvest them at green onion or non-bulb stage. You can always use the thinnings from any garden onions as scallions. If you plant sets and harvest them as scallions there will be a soft remnant of the set left on the new scallion stem that you will need to pull off as you clean them. Scallions planted from seed will not have this, although they will take longer to be ready to eat. If you are planting seed for use as green onions or scallions use types that don’t make bulbs.
Scallions can be planted early in the spring and all through the season until late fall. It’s best to make several small plantings through the season to have a long harvest. You can pop in onion sets wherever you harvest something like early peas, or the first cabbages. Seeds take somewhat longer than sets to mature to eating size and in summer you will need to keep the rows well weeded as they don’t tolerate weed competition when small. Like shallots and leeks scallions need 6 hours or more of sun, moist, but well drained soil, and fertile soil. They will tolerate light frost and more heat than leeks and shallots. If you are going to harvest them as scallions plant sets about 4 inches apart. If you want some of your onions to grow bulbs, pull out every other scallion, leaving plants 8 inches apart.
Onion sets and seeds can be found in almost every garden store, at least in the spring. You can store sets for summer and fall planting by keeping some in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator or in a cool, dark place. Good varieties that do not produce bulbs and make great scallions are Evergreen, Guardsman, Lisbon, Shimonita.
You may know of ramps from fancy restaurants or a backwoods festival in the Appalachians. Ramps (Allium tricoccum) are wild perennial members of the onion family native to North America. They are also called wild onions, wild garlic or wood leek. They were eaten by Native Americans and the city of Chicago is named after them – shikaakwa is the Native American name for ramps.
Ramps have become very trendy in foodie circles. Long a spring favorite in some areas, so much that spring festivals are centered on them they have become so popular that many state have made them a protected plant and limit or forbid harvest from the wild. They are now being grown commercially, but are harder to grow than most onion family members. It’s hard to find a source of plants or seeds but this could be a lucrative small crop if one was located near a city where fine restaurants would feature them. Ramps sell for just under $20 a pound.
Ramps have a single flat broad leaf, similar to the leaf of the Lily Of the Valley. It is sometimes tinged with purple. The stem is similar to a leek or scallion and is the part generally eaten, although the leaves are sometimes used too. Ramps taste like a very strong mixture of green onion and garlic. They are generally cooked before being eaten and frying them in lard or bacon grease and eating them with beans and cornbread or in scrambled eggs are common uses. They are also exchanged for onions or garlic in many recipes. Many gourmet recipes have been built around them too.
It’s hard to find a source to buy ramp seed, the most common way to get plants. Try www.prairiemoon.com or http://www.seedman.com If you try to harvest wild ramps or seeds check to see if your state has any restrictions first. Make sure you know what you are harvesting too; lilies of the valley for instance are poisonous. Ramps grow in patches in rich moist areas, usually in partial shade, generally along wetlands or forest edges. Ramps are primarily a spring crop, although some people are experimenting with growing them as a fall crop too. Ramp seed usually requires a period of cold before it germinates.
There you have it – the onion cousins. Why not try something different in the garden this spring?
Here are some additional articles you may want to read.
Read about an edible oxalis- Oca
Is everything in your garden legal?
How to grow the deadly beauties
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