Friday, 26 October 2012

Southport White Globe Onions

I usually write about vegetables that have been successful for us, but occasionally something just doesn't work. Sometimes it's just a failure; other times it's an instructive failure, and it may be useful to discuss it. Such was the case with these.

We had some difficulty with onion seed this spring, including buying some that didn't germinate, meaning that we had to find a replacement in a hurry. We picked up Southport White Globe from a rack at our local hardware store; the seed coming from the Ontario Seed Company (OSC). They didn't have much selection but I had at least heard of this one. Here's what they had to say about it:
 An excellent white bunching onion that is well adapted to northern growing areas. The bulbs are round, medium sized and solid with thin delicate skin. The flesh is white, fine grained and mild. An excellent direct seeding variety as they mature very quickly. A good keeper. Suitable for regions where the weather tends to rapidly shift between hot and cool during the summer. 

I had already heard about this onion from William Woys Weaver, in Heirloom Vegetable Gardening. Here's his description of the Southport White Globe:
 "...this onion is perfectly round in shape, with a smooth white skin. This variety is always recommended over all other white onions for the American kitchen gardens in old garden books because it can be grown in many parts of the country, including the Upper South. Unfortunately, it is not a good keeper, but it makes a delicious soup."

I trust you can see the problem from the pictures. For most of the summer they sat there not looking that different from any of the other onions, but eventually, as the others began to bulb up and die down, I got more and more anxious about the fact that the Southport White Globe onions were still narrow-bodied and thick-necked, and not dying down at all. And finally, this week, I had to admit that they never were going to do any such thing so I pulled them out and put them on the compost.

So, what exactly happened here?

Well, you may remember when I talked about selecting seeds for the characteristics that you want in them. It's my belief that this variety has been selected for so long for growing as green onions - in other words for not forming a bulb too early - that it seems to have lost the ability to form a bulb at all. This doesn't resemble the perfectly round globe, described by William Weaver and suggested by the name and description on the OSC packet. It has become a different vegetable, for all intents and purposes.

So, if you want long-standing green onions, this is no doubt an excellent choice. If you want actual onions, it is a failure. I have to admit I don't find the idea of a specialized annual green onion all that useful. Starting with Welsh onions early in the spring and moving on as other onions get added to the garden, it's easiest for me just to snip a few onion tops here and there as I want them. Of course, I am home gardener rather than a market grower, which certainly changes the picture.

I wonder if the original Southport White Globe still exists? Has anyone else grown these from another source? What was the result?

According to William Weaver, Southport, Connecticut developed as an area of onion specialists before 1788. They regularly received seed from Spain and Portugal, but during the American revolution it became necessary to grow their own. Over the next century, the Connecticut onion farmers continued to incorporate new genetic material and refine their onions. The Southport White Globe was one of the resulting varieties.At least the one described by Weaver and expected by me.

It was interesting to me how much these over-mature "green" onions resembled leeks, (although, alas, they were tough and stringy when cooked which is why they were all composted). The more I grow alliums the more I see how they resemble each other, sometimes in surprising ways. At any rate, we'll cross this one off the list and continue to look for other interesting open-pollinated onion varieties in the future.

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