THE ONION FAMILY.
The onion is a native of Western and Central Asia, from which territory it came into cultivation, and spread, in various forms, through Europe, and eastward to China. In America, Gray de scribed six native species of wild onion, and one species from Europe. Dairymen dread the appearance of these weeds in pasture land, for if cows crop the stringy leaves, milk and butter are tainted with the peculiar onion flavor. What looks like a patch of tender grass in open woods in early spring often turns out to be wild onion. Once established, the colony is hard to keep from spreading in gardens and fields.
Improvement in this species has made the bulb bigger, more tender and more delicate in flavor. A "scullion" is an onion whose bulb is small, and stem thick, an individual that reverts to the early wild type. Nobody wants it, if he can get a fat onion with a slim neck.
The biggest onions, often a pound in weight or more, grown in Mediterranean countries, are the mild, white Spanish variety. The Island of Bermuda grows the mild Bermuda varieties, almost the equal of the Spanish in delicacy and sweetness. California grows both kinds in the Imperial Valley.
The "potato onion" is a form that substitutes for the single bulb a number of irregular and smaller bulbs. No flowers, seeds nor "sets" are formed. The compound bulb is separated into its divisions, each of which, if planted, produces a cluster. These onions are fine in flavor, but not so convenient to prepare as the single, large ones.
Shallots are onions of the compound bulb group, a different species, however, from the com mon onion, which we know in so many varieties. From early times this vegetable has been used for seasoning, its flavor being more delicate than any old-fashioned varieties of onions. The bulbs keep the year round.
Garlic is another many-bulbed onion, native to southern Europe, and much esteemed there as a flavor, copiously added to stews and other dishes. When grown in northern gardens it is stronger and more burning than in Italy. So a rub of the salad bowl with the fresh-cut surface of a single "clove" (little bulb) of garlic is usually quite enough of this pungent flavor to suit our taste.
When fully grown, the garlic is pulled, and the dried stalks braided together, this long rope loaded with the bulbs is displayed in grocers' doorways.
Chives are tiny onions that grow tufted together by the interlacing of their fine roots, the narrow leaves, like grass blades, making the clump look like a patch of fresh, green turf. The bulbs are about the size of grains of corn. The part we eat is the leaf, which is a delicate seasoning for soups and salads. The usual plan is to buy a pot of chives at the greengrocer's, and keep it to shear as needed. The cutting off of the tops induces a thick growth of more, and the pot lasts indefi nitely.
Outdoors, chives make a pretty border planting for any flower bed. The tuft may be separated, and the single bulbs set. Each soon makes a cluster of new bulbs, and the top spreads.
Leeks are onions whose leaf-bases form long cylinders of white, tender flesh, rather than globular bulbs. The] parts are blanched and delicate in flavor. Like other onions, they are boiled, as a rule, and often served with a cream sauce.
Distinct as are these species of Allium, yet they are joined by intermediate forms that puzzle the botanists to name them. The devotee of the onion merely counts them all on his ten fingers, and is glad that there is not one less, for among the cultivated vegetables there is not another tribe of more wholesome foods than these.
The seed of the onion has, within its outer coat, a mass of starch, enclosing the bent embryo, shaped like a pencil. The tip pushes out of the shell, after the moisture and warmth in the soil start it to growing. From a certain point in the tiny shoot the growth is made in opposite direc tions. Downward goes the root: upward goes the stem. But this is the end attached to the seed, and that is lodged in the warm earth. The seed is not lifted out of the ground, as peas and beans are. Instead, the growing stem of the onion forms a loop which comes out of the soil looking like a very white hairpin, sticking straight up! Out of the bend there comes a leaf that rises from the place where the root struck off toward China. By the time this leaf is ready to do its duty, the seed has withered, and its connection with the hump of the stem dwindles to a thread. This attenuated whip-lash breaks, and the stem straightens, and one by one, other leaves form.
The peculiarity of onion leaves is that they are narrowly tubular above ground, and fleshy and spreading, colorless, and still tubular just below ground, and above the bunch of fibrous roots.
The effect of such growth is to make a bulb-like I vegetable out of the concentric leaf bases. Count the leaves and you know how many layers there are in the onion.
One season's giowth is needed to lay up store of food in bulbs. So the onion rests over winter, and if left where it grew, starts on its second spring to use the store of fleshy leaf-bases to feed one or more flower stalks which rise higher than any leaves of the former season. These stalks are hollow, green and swollen, but tapering to the dense rounded cluster of lavender, or white flowers. These are followed by seeds. After the seeds ripen, the bulb is withered, the plant dead.
Sometimes little fleshy bulbs appear instead of flowers. These are constant in some varieties, occasional in others. These are called "onion sets." The flowers have been transformed into bulblets from which full-grown onions grow the following season.