All about onions

Linda Workman Smith
Multi-County Master Gardener Association

For once I am actually mostly on track with garden planting this year.

Garlic planted last fall. Onions planted a few weeks ago. Peas planted a couple of weeks ago! Today, I’ll be talking about onions.

Many archaeologists, botanists, and food historians believe onions originated in central Asia. Other research suggests onions were first grown in Iran and West Pakistan.

It is presumed our predecessors discovered and started eating wild onions very early – long before farming or even writing was invented. Very likely, this humble vegetable was a staple in the prehistoric diet.

Most researchers agree the onion has been cultivated for 5,000 years or more. Since onions grew wild in various regions, they were probably consumed for thousands of years and domesticated simultaneously all over the world. Onions may be one of the earliest cultivated crops because they were less perishable than other foods of the time, were transportable, were easy to grow, and could be grown in a variety of soils and climates. In addition, the onion was useful for sustaining human life. Onions prevented thirst and could be dried and preserved for later consumption when food might be scarce. While the place and time of the onion’s origin is still a mystery, many documents from very early times describe its importance as a food and its use in art, medicine, and mummification.

In the Age of Discovery, onions were taken to North America by the first European settlers, only to discover the plant readily available, and in wide use by Native Americans. According to diaries kept by certain of the first English colonists, the bulb onion was one of the first crops planted by the Pilgrims.

Onions are classified as short day, intermediate day or long day. Short day onions begin bulbing when daylight length reaches 10-12 hours; intermediate day onions 12-14 hours; long day onions14-15 hours.

To determine which particular onion grows best in your situation, many seed catalog companies list the latitude range best suited for a particular onion. Shawnee, Oklahoma, USA sits at 35.3425 degrees latitude so short and intermediate day onions are recommended here. The problem: There are lots of sweet and intermediate day onions but they don’t store very long. Most long day onions store for longer periods. Several years ago, I decided to experiment. I chose a long day onion with the closest recommended latitude range to Shawnee’s. The variety was Copra. It is a yellow, globe shaped slightly pungent onion that can reach 4 inches in diameter. It’s purported to store for 10-12 months. I have had good success with Copra in most of the past 7 years.

Every year I grow several varieties of sweet onions also and use them first. Some only store for a couple of months; others may keep 3-4 months, or a bit longer.

To store well, onions have to be grown right, harvested at the right stage, cured well and stored properly.

But that is a subject for a later time.

As always, happy gardening!