THE ONION;ITS HISTORY, CULTURE, AND PRESERVATION BY ELISHA SLADE, SOMERSET, MASSACHUSETTS.*
From time immemorial the onion has been cultivated by man, and still grows wild in many portions of the world. For more than 4,000 years it has been used as an article of food by “all classes and conditions of men;" and there are few that have not some savory remembrances of it as a constituent of those dishes that “none can cook as well as mother.” The Israelites, 1,490 years before the Saviour’s advent, murmured in the wilderness: "We remembered the fish we did eat in Egypt freely, the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlics.”—Numbers xi, 5. Hasselquist says that “whoever has tasted the onions of Egypt must allow that none can be had better in any part of the universe. Here they are sweet; in other countries they are nauseous and strong. Here they are soft; whereas, in northern parts they are hard, arid their coats are so compact that they are difficult of digestion. Hence they cannot in any place be eaten with less prejudice and more satisfaction than in Egypt.”
It is unknown where, precisely, our cultivated onion originated. Some writers say that no species of the allium now found growing wild will produce the vegetable called the onion, even though cultivated ever so carefully. Others inform us that the species with fistular stalks and swelling bulbs, now found in Persia, would, if cultivated, produce this vegetable, and firmly assert that it is the original of all the varieties of onion now grown. Some declare that the onion was given to Adam as we now have it, and that it has not degenerated, and cannot degenerate in the least; while others say that if left to itself for a few years it would “fall from grace,” and become like the wild species described. Be these theories as they may, the wild species of Persia is so nearly allied to our cultivated onion that some travellers cannot tell the difference.
In India the onion is highly esteemed for food, and used as an antidote to many diseases, even to a greater extent than in Europe; and most dwellers in our own country can remember it as an article of medicine, administered for their youthful ailments by a skillful mother or maiden aunt.
The ancient Greeks and Romans cultivated it in large quantities, and at one time the Roman armies almost wholly subsisted on it. They also imported onions from abroad in great quantities. The island Cimolus was named Onion on account of the peculiar quality and the immense numbers raised there; and it is said that the Roman provinces of Spain, in the days of Scipio the Younger, produced annually $200,000 worth of this esculent.
Hannibal, who swore “eternal hate to Rome,” and led the Carthaginian hosts through sultry Spain and across the snowy Alps, well knew that the health of his army demanded the onion, ever present, amid all the changes of heat and cold. And Aurelian, who led his armies across the burning sands of Arabia, conquering Palmyra, and leading its queen, Zenobia, captive to Rome, found that his army suffered terribly from scurvy, and was restored to health only when he found in the captured city well-watered gardens containing abundance of garlic and onions.
So great a quantity of this bulb was raised at the Alibi, in France, that the tithe of them is said to have yielded an annual revenue of one thousand crowns for its bishop.
Thus might we glean notice after notice from the pages of history of the high esteem and value accorded this vegetable down to the present day, when Spain, Portugal, and Tripoli yet keep up their ancient reputations for the quantities and qualities of their onions; while in this new world their culture seems everywhere increasing from Canada to Patagonia, and especially in these United States, since our soldiers proved their value in camp, in hospital, and on the march, all through our late civil war. Each one of our brave boys would indorse the statement of its worth made by a late writer, who estimates the amount of nourishing gluten contained in the onion at 25 or 30 per cent., and says: “It is not merely as a relish, therefore, that the Spaniard eats his onion with his humble crust of bread as he sits by the refreshing spring; it is because experience has long proved that, like the cheese of the English laborer, it helps to sustain his strength also, and adds (beyond what its bulk would suggest) to the amount of nourishment which his simple meal supplies.”
But few will deny the importance of the onion as an article of diet, or in a sanitary point of view. Nor is it without commercial importance, An utter failure of the onion crop would create considerable panic in the vegetable market. It is rapidly increasing as an article of export, and will figure largely in the tables which show “how we feed the nations.” It is stated on good authority that in the year 1860 the value of onions exported exceeded the value of exports of apples by more than $250,000. It is also estimated that in 1865 there were planted one-fourth more acres of onions than in any previous year, and that the average product per acre was 500 bushels. And yet the market seems by no means glutted; the appetite “grows with what it feeds upon,” and, like a certain famous Oliver, asks for “more!” Let us, then, consider the ways and means to meet the demand, and make the supplying of it profitable.
If compelled to purchase from unknown or unreliable dealers, test the germinating power of the seed before buying. After onion seed is two years old much of it is worthless. The following tests may be of service: 1, new seed is soft, and has a strong taste; 2, good seed sinks in water; 3, placed on cotton, kept soaking wet and in a warm place, good seed will germinate in a few days; 4, pour hot water on two sods, place seed between them, and put the whole under a stove or other warm position, and it will germinate in a few days; and, lastly, (as a test which will also hasten the preparation for planting, and cause an early springing of the crop,) pour boiling water on a mass of seed so as to cover it, pouring it off in a few seconds, when, if good, minute, hair- like sprouts will start from the heated mass, which may then be mixed with plaster or ashes, and immediately planted.But it is better always to buy your seed from a reliable dealer, even at double price, if necessary, than to get poor or wrong seed as a gift, for the seeds of an inferior kind of onions may be fresh and good as mere seed. And it is best of all to raise your own seed thus:
Select a sufficient number of smooth, hard, ripe onions, of medium size, and of the kinds you desire. Keep them in a cool, dry place, where they will not freeze, though some planters say that freezing does not injure them. As soon as the soil can be worked in the spring, set them out in a rich, deeply-tilled, mellow soil, in rows two feet apart, and the bulbs one foot apart in the rows. Cover them nearly to the stalk, hoe frequently, and keep them free from weeds. In no case allow more than two stalks of a bulb to bear seed, if you desire good, heavy seed. Tie the stalks to stakes or trellises when they become heavy and drooping. When the heads begin to open and the stalks to turn to a straw- color, cut off the seed heads, and spread them on a loft floor or other warm and dry place, until the seed shells out easily—say in four to six weeks. Then shell and winnow it clean, and put it away in paper bags, closed with gum or paste, so as to exclude the air, and keep it in a dry place, secure from mice, until needed.
Any soil that can be made mellow, and will grow corn, will produce onions It must be enriched with fine manure, and be deeply stirred, and kept clear of weeds. The best manures are the excrements of fowls and pigs; next, well- rotted or composted stable manure. But in all cases avoid manures containing seeds of weeds and grasses, as they are the great enemies of the crop. Hence some prefer liquid manure, and continue to raise onions year after year on the same plot or field. Apply the manure at the fall ploughing, if possible; if not, in the spring, after the deep ploughing; spread it and plough it in lightly, and mix it well with the soil, which should be thoroughly and finely pulverized, and the field or onion bed made as level as possible. Complete the preparation by breaking up all the clods, and removing the stones, if any, if you would have the full benefit of your labors. Some roll the land previous to planting, (and sandy or spongy soils may be benefited by it,) but it should be done very lightly, so as to leave all beneath the mere surface easily to be penetrated by the tender roots.
Warm soils will be benefited by sowing a few bushels of salt, or many of ashes, or both, to the acre, over the surface before planting.
This is done by a machine where a large breadth is cultivated. It is unnecessary to describe these labor-savers, save to remark that the one most generally used in Massachusetts plants two rows at a time, and has small rollers attached for pressing down the seed. Those used in Connecticut are said to cost about four dollars each, and the seed is planted in rows about twelve inches apart, (and about six inches in the row, if the machine plants in hills, which is deemed better than in drills,) and covered with a hand rake, carefully drawn parallel with the rows, covering two rows.at a time. The seed should be covered about half an inch deep, and from five to eight seeds put in a hill, if for home market, or for sale by the bushel; but ten to twelve seeds to a hill, if designed for a foreign market, or bunching on straw. From four to six pounds of seed are usually planted to the acre. Plant as early as the condition of the ground will allow.
N. B.—South of the State of New York: onions are generally cultivated as a biennial. The seed is sown in drills from nine to twelve inches apart, three seeds to an inch in the drill, in beds conveniently wide, and carefully prepared by manuring and pulverization for the purpose. The small bulbs thus produced the first year are called “sets” in the middle States, and “buttons” further south. The second year these “sets” are set out in rows one foot apart, and five or six inches in the row. The “button” held between the fingers and the thumb is gently pressed into its place, so that it sets firmly in the ground, merely deep enough to allow the small fibrous roots to descend into the~soil, and yet not cover the bulb above them. The “sets” should not, then, be disturbed until firmly rooted, and in all after cultivation care should be taken not to loosen them. Hence all weeding near the bulbs should be performed by hand.
The harvesting of the “buttons” or “sets” the first year, and their cultivation the second year, is the same as for onions cultivated as annuals.
Full-sized onions are sometimes raised from the seed in one year, even in the middle States, by selecting a site that dries off early in the spring, well sheltered from cold winds, and properly exposed to the sun; and then planting very early, so as to secure a large growth before summer’s drought and heat stop the circulation of sap in the tops. But frequent failures to attain a full growth induce most persons to prefer the two-years’ culture.
As soon as the rows become visible lines of green, go through with a light hoe, and stir the ground between the rows, carefully extirpating every weed. When the onions are fairly up, take out the weeds which this first hoeing may have left near and in the rows. To do this well requires great care and frequent use of the fingers. Take in one hand a very light hoe, (the blade about one to two inches wide, and three or four inches long, and the handle a foot or eighteen inches long,) and with the fingers of the other hand ever ready to pull the grass and weeds, (it would be dangerous to cut with the hoe,) on your knees apply yourself to the task. A handy, willing boy will do this work better and faster than a man.
The wheel-hoe is a valuable implement for field culture, to cut up the weeds between the rows. But weeding in the rows, and around the bulbs, must be done by the small hand-hoe and the fingers, at least until some ingenious Yankee invents a machine capable of discerning onions from weeds.
From the first appearance of the tops, until the bulbs are as large as pullets’ eggs, the ground should be frequently hoed to keep it mellow, and every weed be carefully cut up or rooted out to give the onions the sole occupancy of the soil and the full benefit of the culture. But when the bulbs attain that size, the hoe should be laid aside, at least not be allowed near the finest root, and finger weeding only be used to keep the crop perfectly free from weeds.
The most common disease is smut or blight. It shows its presence by turning the tops to a straw-color, when, on examination, the inside of the leaves will be found smutty or black. In some cases the stalk cracks open; but. at other times it takes the same form as in wheat or other cereals. This disease is more common in old fields than in new. The causes are imperfectly known, and no effectual remedy has yet been found. Probably a sprinkling of sulphur would be beneficial.
If onions show a disposition to “grow too much to top,” or to form seed bulbs, bend down the tops, giving them a twist at the same time that shall bruise them, but be careful not,to break them off.
If the plants persistently run to thick necks, or “scallions,” pull them up as soon as of sufficient size for marketing or home use, and thus give the others more room.
Soon after the plants come up a small greenish white fly, about half the size of the common house fly, with very transparent wings of rainbow hues, punctures the young stalks near the ground, and deposits from one to six eggs, closing the wound with wax, which the insect secretes. In from one week to twelve days (according to the weather) the eggs are hatched, and the maggots gnaw their way out and go down into the little bulb. Here they remain long enough to destroy the plant, when they emigrate to another for a fresh supply. They generally finish the work of destruction about the beginning of July. They do not always confine their work to the young plants, but attack advanced bulbs and the seed onion. When the maggots have attained the age of six or eight weeks, they bury themselves in the ground, roll themselves up like the chrysalis of the canker worm, and remain through the winter. In the spring, after the ground is sufficiently warm, they emerge from their resting place as perfect insects.
1. Soak the seed in water a little above blood heat for half an hour to hatch out the maggot; then ina strong solution of copperas or saltpetre to kill those that remain; and finish by rolling the seed in dry air-slaked lime, and sow it.
2. Soak the seed for 24 hours in chamber lye, (urine,) or in brine made as strong as possible, then roll in ashes and sow.
3. Mix every pound of seed with half a pound of sulphur, and sow them together.
4. The dust from coal pits and forges, (mixed with ashes, if the ground is not a heavy clay,) well-spread and lightly ploughed or cultivated in before planting.
5. Sow soot, or charcoal dust, or common salt, thickly over three-fourths or four-fifths of the rows at planting, (leaving the other rows as “cities of refuge;”) renew the application as soon as the onions are well up; and again (say) about the middle of June.
6. As soon as the plants appear, (and again, at intervals of from a week to ten days, until the middle of June,) sprinkle dry, unleached ashes on (and not merely around) the plants while they are wet with rain or dew. Some water the plants, and then sprinkle.
7. Others prefer a mixture of equal parts of charcoal dust, (or soot,) air-slaked lime, ashes, and plaster, applied while the onions are wet.8. Cover the ground around the plants with fresh pine sawdust, and when the plants are about four inches high, wet the sawdust with gas water, diluted with twice its bulk of soft water.
9. Where gas water cannot be had, some substitute a strong decoction of tobacco.
10. Great success has attended the pouring of boiling water from a tea-kettle spout along the drills, close to the bulbs. There is no danger in this, as a living vegetable will resist a brief heat sufficient to destroy the tender cold-blooded maggot.
This is sometimes very destructive. It belongs to the same family as the cabbage worm, and cuts off the stalk just above the ground. It generally works during the night, and at daybreak covers itself with earth, which it resembles in color, so that it is difficult to discover it. It is about an inch long when fully grown.
As with the maggots, so with the cut-worm; the same general applications cause him to “ change his base;” but the principal remedy is, “spare the birds.” They are “up in the morning early,” before the worms retire for the day; and “the early bird catches the worm.” How beneficial, then, are these “ denizens of the upper deep” to the onion grower! They are diligent in providing daily and hourly food “from early dawn to dewy eve;” and if they do sandwich their worms and ‘flies with’ an occasional cherry or strawberry, it is for their health, and really leaves us in their debt on the whole account.
Having kept down the weeds throughout the season, and, with the help of the birds, done what we could to lessen the scourge of the insects, the next event in order is
When the tops turn yellow or brown and fall over, the onions are fit for harvesting. (The “scallions” or thick-necked plants, with others not matured, can be passed by for later disposal.) Pull, hoe, or rake out the bulbs carefully, so as not to wound or bruise them, and expose the bottoms or roots to the air as much as possible. Leave them to dry, turning them once or twice to secure perfect drying. If you desire to secure them in their greatest beauty, after a few days stack them, about a barrel to a heap, for sweating. After remaining in heaps about two weeks, open the stack, spread it, and dry again for two or three bright sunny days. They are then ready for marketing or storing. If intended for early marketing, cut the tops off about an inch above the bulb and pack in barrels. If they are to be put in ropes, or bunched, cut off the tops about three inches above; but if they are to be stored, leave the tops and dried husks (to absorb any moisture caused by after-heating and sweating) until ready to market them. A sheep shears will be found a good instrument for topping them. For storing, they should be perfectly dry and free from dirt. The loft, store-room, or cellar, should be of even temperature, cool, dry, and airy. Spread them out in bins or on floors, not over a foot deep, unless by putting an open floor of slats under them, elevated a few inches above the tight floor, you provide for a free circulation of air under, up, through, and on all sides of the pile. In such case they may be spread three, four, or even five feet deep. Watch diligently, however, and carefully keep them from heating; and should they heat, or gather moisture, open the heap immediately and dry and cool them. If liable to freeze at the approach of cold weather, cover them well with hay, straw, carpeting, &c., at top and sides, so that if they do freeze, they may remain undisturbed and free from thawing until spring, and then thaw them gradually, as thus the freezing will not injure them. See, therefore, that the coverings at the sides and on top are not removed until all are thawed out.
The “scallions” and later gathering should be kept by themselves, and marketed early.
Weathersfield—the most prolific and most commonly cultivated—is a large, red variety, from which three sub-varieties have been produced by careful and long-continued culture—the first Early and the second Early Red ripening from three weeks to a fortnight earlier than the Late Red, and smaller than it in size,. The Large Late Red sometimes grows to six inches in diameter, and is hardier than the earlier reds. Some cultivators suppose that these three varieties are wholly determined by the shape of the bulbs employed for raising seed— the flat producing the late, and the rounder bulbs producing the earlier varieties.
Early Red Globe—a very fine and delicate onion—much sought after, and highly esteemed by epicures.
The red varieties are generally better growers and keepers than the white and yellow, but do not sell as readily, nor bring as high a price in the markets.
The Yellow Danvers—round, solid, a good keeper, and the next in production, if not the equal of the Weathersfield. It ripens about the beginning of September; is very compact and heavy, weighing more per bushel than any other; is more uniform in shape and size, and will yield “a greater proportion of handsome, well-developed seed onions” than any other, according to Mr. Gregory, of Marblehead, Massachusetts.
The Early Cracker—so called from its resemblance to the water-cracker— also a yellow onion, is thin, compact, honey-color, “in fineness of structure and delicacy of flavor is unsurpassed,” and accordingly commands a higher price than other early sorts. It bruises easily, and, therefore, requires careful handling. Its diameter varies from two to three inches, and its thickness is about one inch from neck to root.
White Portugal or Silver Skin—an early variety, frequently planted for “sets.” It is rather a poor keeper, but has a mild, sweet, delicious flavor. It is the principal variety grown in Buenos Ayres, where it grows much larger than here.
The Potato onion grows from bulbs planted deep in the ground, the planted
bulb growing to a large size, and producing from five to seven small bulbs
around it for next year’s planting. It is the earliest of the onion tribe, being fit
for the table several weeks earlier than any grown from seed. And as it is
planted deeper in the earth than common “sets” or “buttons,” it may be put in
place in the fall, (as it is easier to shelter from freezing by extra covering than
the common onion,) so as to start at the first warmth of spring. The potato
onion is mild in flavor, hard in flesh, and the small bulbs excellent for pickling.
It is a poor keeper. Plant in rows 18 inches apart, and the bulbs from 6 to 8
inches apart in the row. he planted bulb will grow to about three inches in
There is no doubt that the potato onion originated in some freak of the common kinds, as frequently a seed will produce several little onions instead of a large one; and sometimes a potato onion will send up a large single shoot and try to head, but seldom produces seed.
Of the above kinds, the Weathersfield large red is the most prolific, in some instances over 900 bushels having been produced to the acre. Next, if not equal to it in productiveness, is the Yellow Danvers. In pecuniary profit the two are probably equal, except in particular localities, where market preferences may make a difference.
The Department of Agriculture has imported and distributed widely seeds of several approved foreign varieties, which it is hoped may prove valuable accessions when properly cultivated and duly acclimated. Among these we will name the following, copying the descriptions given of them from Thompson’s “Gardener’s Assistant,” a valuable and costly British work.
White Spanish or White Portugal— "Very large, flat; skin loose, pale brown, falling off spontaneously, exhibiting the next coating, which is greenish white; flavor particularly mild. This sort is not a long keeper, but is much esteemed for its quality, and is one of the best for early winter use.”
White Lisbon or White Florence—"Large, globular, neck rather thick; the skin thin, smooth, clear, and white. A late, but hardy sort.”
Strasburg, Flanders, or Dutch —"Large, varying in shape from flat to globular or oval; outside coating brown, of firm texture; divested of this the color is reddish brown tinged with green; flavor strong. Being a hardy sort and a good keeper, it is very generally cultivated.”
White Globe—"A sub-variety of the Strasburg, much approved of by the growers near London, It is rather large and firm;. general form roundish, but inclining to taper abruptly towards the neck, and also to the root, which is an advantage, as the hard portion in connexion with the root is somewhat prominent, and can be cut off without entering deeply into the softer substance of the bulb. It is of excellent quality, and a good keeper.”
French, or Dutch Blood Red.— Middle-sized or large, rather flattish; skin dull red, the coating next below it glossy, and very dark red. he internal layers are palest at the base, and, except at the top, they are only colored on their outsides; each layer is paler than the one that surrounds it till the centre is reached, which is white. Of all others this is the strongest flavored; it keeps remarkably well.”
Tripoli or Besagnina.— Very large, tapering sometimes abruptly from the middle to the neck, and almost equally so to the root; color light reddish brown, beneath the skin pale brownish red tinged with green. It is of a soft nature, and does not keep long, but while it lasts it is much esteemed on account of its mild quality.”
Welsh or Cyboule—"This is the Allium fistulosum, J.., an herbaceous perennial, a native of. Siberia, and consequently very hardy. The French have two varieties—the white and the red. It is quite distinct from the common onion, inasmuch as it never forms a bulb; its roots are long and tapering, with strong fibres, and its stems and leaves are hollow. Its principal use is for sowing in the end of July or beginning of August, to furnish young onions for salads early in the spring. Being very hardy, some of it should be grown for a supply in case the common onion should be cut off by a*severe winter.”
Both depend, of course, on many circumstances—kind of culture, success, prices of materials, labor, onions, &c. But that the inexperienced may form some estimate of probabilities the prominent items of expense per acre are named: 1st, interest on value of land; 2d, twenty loads of manure; 3d, hauling, spreading, and ploughing, or cultivating in the same, so as to mix it thoroughly with the soil; 4th, fall and spring ploughing and harrowing; 5th, raking off clods and stones, and levelling the ground for planting; 6th, 100 bushels of ashes, or their equivalent in lime, plaster, or other fertilizers and remedies; 7th, four to six pounds of seed; 8th, planting; 9th, hoeing not less than four or five times—say six days; 10th, weeding not less than four or five times—say thirty days of boy labor; 11th, pulling and piling ten to twelve days; 12th, topping, drawing home with team, and putting up, crop for market. The total of these expenses in Connecticut and Massachusetts (where the cost is probably greatest) would be covered by from $130 to, $150. The market price of onions in the large cities, at the proper selling season, rarely is less than fifty cents per bushel, or more than $2. Estimating an average yield to be 500 bushels, it will readily be seen that with but moderate care and success onion- raising is a paying crop, and in some sections may be made a profitable one.
The new beginner should remember that skid is only acquired by experience, combined with persistent industry, close observation, and all the knowledge he can obtain from others, A beginning should, therefore, be made on a moderate scale. The second requisite is a deeply-cultivated, rich, friable soil, as free from weeds as possible. The third is good and abundant. manuring. The fourth is good seed of the best kinds of onions. And the fifth (which is fully as important as any) is, never allow the weeds to get the start of you. The land also should be as nearly level as possible, and fully exposed to the sun.
Guano, superphosphates, and bone-dust or bone-flour, are all recommended for special manures to stimulate the growth, and the first named to keep off the fly; and where manure of hogs or fowls is scarce or dear, they answer an excellent purpose. The mixture of soot, fresh air-slaked lime, plaster, charcoal dust, ashes, salt, (omitting the last two if the land is heavy clay or too wet,) will be found a good preventive, and a stimulant also, and is highly recommended for the latter purpose. They should always be sowed when the plant a are wet. If the soil is very sandy, and has been well limed, the lime may be omitted.
Some tramp the soil around the bulbs, or run a very light roller (or a barrel) over the rows, when the plants show no disposition to “bottom” or form bulbs. The effect is the same as in bending down and twisting the tops, as already mentioned.
Earlier crops can be secured of this plant, as of others, by careful selection of the finest early ripening onions, and of the earliest ripening seed from them. But some growers deem it necessary to “change seed” frequently; in which case, correspondents should be selected who can be relied on to pursue the same measures for improvement, with whom to exchange seed, A free exchange of “experience,” to accompany exchanges of seed, will add to the profits of both parties.
And in this, as in the culture of all other products, the grower must enrich his soil not only with “the sweat of his brow,” but with the best use of his brains, if he would attain the greatest success in his vocation.
* With additions from other sources, by A. B. Grosh, of the Department of Agriculture.
Now known as Delia antiqua