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Wild Onions

Updated: May 20, 2023

Nature Bulletin No. 184, March 19, 1949

When Father Marquette and his party, in 1674, journeyed from what is now Green Bay, Wisconsin to what is now Chicago, it is recorded that one of their chief foods was the wild onion: probably the Wild Leek and the Meadow Garlic in the woods of Wisconsin, and the nodding Onion so abundant in the wet prairies around Chicago.

Two of the first plants to push thru the ground in spring, along with the skunk cabbage, are the wild leek and wild garlic.

A woodsman will eat handfuls of their tender leaves, which is alright if he stays in the woods away from people. Believe it or not, leeks, garlic, and onions are members of the lily family - some call them "outlaw" members. Their flavor and odor are due to an oil-like vegetable compound sulfur, which is volatile and dissipated by heat, making them more palatable when cooked; particularly if boiled in three waters, the first two being thrown away.

The wild leek, which grows in rich moist soils, has a cluster of bulbs on a short underground stem, and 2 or 3 broad flat tongue-like leaves that disappear before the plant blooms in June or July. The flower stalk, 4 to 5 inches tall, is topped by an umbrella, like the ribs of an umbrella of a number of greenish-white flowers. Cows will eat all the wild leek they can find, but it taints their milk and butter. The plant was a favorite food of the early hunters and fur trappers, and the pioneers had "leek parties" featured by leek soup.

Wild garlic has a small bulb, much sweeter and more palatable than those of the wild leek, and narrow flat leaves. It blooms in May or June, and some or all of the pinkish flowers, at the top of a stem, from 18 to 24 inches tall, are usually replaced by bulblets that are excellent for pickles. The

underground bulb, gathered in early spring or late autumn makes a mighty

good creamed soup. The young leaves are good in salads, greens, or seasoning.

Field Garlic or Crow Garlic, introduced into our eastern states from Europe, has spread as far west as Missouri. Preferring fields, pastures, and lawns, and difficult to get rid of, it has a very offensive odor and is one of our most evil weeds. From its very small hard bulb, rise many slender hollow leaves and a flower stalk bearing a dense umbel of small greenish or purplish flowers which are replaced by bulblets about the shape and size of a grain of wheat. If eaten by cows, their milk is worthless. Wheat-containing bulblets are unfit for flour until they are removed.

The nodding onion has an oblong bulb from which grow very slender flat leaves and a 12 to 24-inch stalk curving downward at the top, with a nodding umbel with rose-colored or white bell-shaped flowers.

It grows on banks, hillsides, and prairies in many parts of the United States, and formerly was so abundant in Illinois prairies that the landscape was tinged with pink when it bloomed in midsummer. The bulb is good to eat if parboiled and excellent when pickled. Bub and leaves can be used for soup flavoring, and the leaves cooked like asparagus or used as greens.

An old home remedy for coughs and colds was onion syrup; and a remedy for earache was a little bulb of wild garlic: cooked and placed piping hot, in your ear.

Caution: Some plants with bulbs or leaves that resemble onions but lack the familiar odor, are among the deadliest poisons, including Death Camass and Fly Poison.

Some folks boil wild onions in three waters and then throw them all away, including the onions.

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