Wednesday, April 10, 2013

From Wales to Egypt

This title suggests an interesting travelogue from Northern Europe to North Africa. Actually, the article is about the lowly onion. In fact, it is about two less common onions: the Welsh onion and the Egyptian onion. Both are perennial and particularly useful at this time of the year. One of them is also very decorative in summer.

The best way to describe the Welsh onion (Allium fistulosum, also known as Japanese bunching onion) is to compare it to chives. Actually, “big chives” is how you would translate “ciboule”, the French name for it.  Like chives, it does not produce a noticeable bulb, but rather green hollow leaves which are the edible part. You use it as a green onion.
Allium fistulosum
Welsh Onion in early April
In summer, they get a bit coarse, but in spring they are tender and delicious. The big advantage they have over all the more tender green onions a garden can grow is that they are very early. At Roche Fleurie they appear before the crocuses. They are perennial, and therefore they do a bit of growing the moment the soil thaws. We are having a late spring this year, and most nights the soil is still frozen.  But the Welsh onions are already 15 cm tall (6 inches). Welsh onions ensure that at the end of winter you have green onions from the garden to put in salads, stir fries or soups.

As I said, at this early stage they are quite tender and delicious. This is not their only asset, however. Later on in summer they get to be 50 cm (almost 2 feet) tall and they bloom in white. At the top of thick leaves, they produce a typical allium sphere, looking very architectural.
If you want to both eat some in the spring and use some decoratively, it is best to grow them in two spots. The decorative ones you leave alone. After they have bloomed, they will produce seeds, which you can use to start the next spring crop for the table. 

The decorative ones require hardly any maintenance. They are perennial and can be left on their own. You might have to remove a few plants if they get too crowded. I got mine many years ago from my friend Gwenned Brundrett – how more Welsh can  a name be than Gwenned?

Now to Egypt and Allium proliferum which is supposed to be a hybrid between the Welsh and the common onion. We also used it as a green onion in spring. But it eventually makes a good sized bulb at the base, which can be used in the fall as a regular cooking onion (a rather strong one). At Roche Fleurie, they are slightly later than the Welsh ones. This timing works out perfectly well as we first use the Welsh onions and then move on to the Egyptians.
Allium proliferum
Egyptian Onion in early April

As the Latin name (proliferum) implies, they are very prolific. Contrarily to fistulosum, proliferum produces bulbs, lots of bulbs. You plant these bulbs anytime from spring to late summer and eat the leaves as green onions in the spring. Later in the season, at the end of leaves you have not eaten, instead of a flower are bunches of small bulbs which you can plant for next spring. I have heard that some people pickle these marble-sized bulbs. Apparently, if you tie the stem to a light stake, it will make more than one head of bulblets. I have never tried it.

They are also known as tree onions and walking onions. The latter name is perhaps more descriptive as they spread like the walking fern – the tip, heavy with bulbs, falls to the ground from which new plants grow. They are very tough. I got my original stock from Larkwhistle, the most famous garden in the Bruce peninsula. I tucked them in the grass (we did not yet have a garden here), and years later I found them doing very well, having managed to survive being choked by weeds.

Neither onion is Welsh or Egyptian. Apparently, the name Welsh preserves the meaning of the old English "welisc" meaning foreign: the plants actually originated in Siberia. As for the Egyptian onion, it might have been brought to Europe by gypsies, hence the name Egyptian.

A recipe

A very simple way to eat these onion greens is with pasta.

You fry a few mushroom slices in oil. When they are nice and brown, add some Welsh or Egyptian (or both) onions green cut into small pieces. You can also add a few small pieces of garlic green, as the new crop of garlic is now about the same size as the Welsh onion, and even some leeks, if you have some left from the previous fall (you need very little).

Fry all this with the mushrooms, but not very long, just long enough to mix the flavours.
Add to your linguine or other pasta with some olive oil and voilà!

You can also add some pumpkin seeds or a few walnuts to increase the proteins. Instead of Parmesan cheese, you can spread on top of  your noodles a mixture of good-tasting nutritional yeast with sunflower seeds which you have ground together with salt and a bit of nutmeg (in a coffee grinder designated for such work).

Seasonal Addendum

The proverb “A stitch in time saves nine” is just as true when you rephrase it as “A weed pulled in time saves nine”. A far as weeds are concerned, “in time” in our climate means November and April. These are usually, cold wet and windy months but weeds are much easier to pull out in these two months, and half an hour of weeding in spring or late fall produces better results than at least two hours of weeding in June.


  1. Last time I checked I would be very hard pressed to find even a bit of green in my garden area because of the snow!Today is Thursday, April 18, 2013. Perhaps the expression, "A weed pulled in time saves nine," may be earlier and later in our climate as October and May on the prairies.

  2. Marlene Gregg FischerApril 20, 2013 at 11:08 AM

    My Egyptian onions along with the chives have "walked" over 2/3 of my garden at our cottage in the Bruce. They are only about 4 inches tall, but looking very green. The seedlings came from my parent's garden over 40 years ago. My dad called them "multipliers". They sound like the same onion, though.
    The lake is very high, and there is a lot of standing water around. Even the onions are in some places submerged. I was concerned that the board walk would end up floating away. We'll just have to wait and see.

  3. I am sure your multipliers are my Egyptians. The water level is indeed very high and many things are submerged here too (including part of the driveway!). Have a good weekend!


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