Wednesday, 16 May 2012
I've mentioned welsh onions a few times, when I've cooked with them or recommended them as a vegetable to grow. I think it's time to get into a bit more detail about them. They are rather obscure as a vegetable, which is too bad. They deserve to be better known.
Still, it's not too likely that market gardeners will suddenly take to growing them; you will probably have to grow your own. I think them worth while even in the smallest garden; perhaps even if all you have are pots, although I admit I haven't tried them there. They are very hardy and easy to grow though, so I think they would do fine in pots. Many people do grow them as an ornamental plant. The leaves form a handsome, strappy clump and the flowers are perfect ivory spheres, so they fit very comfortably into a mixed perennial border as well.
In appearance they are not so different from any other green onion. Their great advantage is that they are the very first onion up in the spring, allowing the gardener and cook green onions perhaps as early as March and certainly by April. Now, in May, they are still going strong although I will soon turn to other onions in the garden and give them a rest.
Unlike most onions, which are biennials, welsh onions are perennials. This is always a bit tricky in a vegetable, especially one where you eat the whole thing. There are other perennial alliums - shallots, walking onions, multiplier onions or potato onions - and like them, welsh onions grow in clumps and are generally increased by bulb offsets.
They probably resemble chives more than any other member of the domesticated allium family, but chives on steroids, being up to three times taller and a great deal more robust. One way to use them is like chives: cut off the tops, and let them regrow. Alternately, they can be dug up once they are mature enough to form a clump, and 2/3 to 3/4 of the larger onions used, and the rest replanted. And, unlike those other perennial alliums increased by bulb offsets, welsh onions still reproduce very well sexually; i.e. they produce fertile pollen and set ample seed. In spite of this, I have never had them self-seed excessively in the garden, unlike chives. This does open the possibility of growing a new set each year from seed.
Welsh onions (allium fistulosum) are not Welsh. They were introduced into England in 1562, as poultry feed, sent by a Swiss botanist who refered to them as welsch, meaning foreign. Confusion was inevitable. Ultimately, they are said to have originated in Siberia. There are more refined varieties that have made their way east as well, and seeds for them can be found in Oriental seed lists, especially Japanese ones. However, the robust and basic welsh onion is a good choice for home gardeners here.
They are one of the easiest alliums to grow, not being fussy about soil although they do require it to be well-drained. Indeed, once established they are quite drought resistant. You can start them in pots then plant them out, or direct seed them in the spring. They will need full sun to light partial shade. Give them a good dose of water when you divide them, to help get them settled back in again. They will toughen once the flowers start, so either remove the flower stalks or move on to other onions once that happens.
Apparently there is a white skinned and red skinned variety of welsh onions, but the white skinned are regarded as milder, more tender and better growers, and are the only one I have seen.