The Humble Onion

The lowly onion is so frequently used in almost every cuisine of the world that we forget the onion is one of the most essential herbs in history. The onion has long been used for its healing powers and as an ornamental in some gardens. Onions have a long and colorful history, dating back to the ancient Egyptians. Today, it is commonly used in cooking, as a garnish, and as a condiment. Here, we discuss the humble onion - its medicinal and culinary uses, its history, and how it is cultivated and stored.

History of Onion

The history of onions goes back to at least 3500 BCE. The onion was favored by the Egyptians, and the onion plant is the plant most often depicted on tomb paintings. They worshiped the onion because its spherical shape and concentric layers symbolized to them eternity. The onion became recognized as a food centuries ago because it was one of the few herbs that would survive the winter in storage. Because of this, it was then cultivated for food. It probably originated in Asia, but grows wild on every continent. History shows us that Alexander the great fed onions to his troops to give them strength in battle. Ancient Greek athletes consumed large quantities of onions because they felt it would "lighten the balance of the blood". When Rome conquered Greece, the Roman gladiators were rubbed down with the onion to "firm up the muscles." Onions were brought to America by the Pilgrims, and to this day remain an important part of our diet.

Medicinal Uses

The onion contains, like garlic, antibacterial and antifungal components. The ancient Egyptians had over 800 different prescriptions for medicines based on the onion. In the Middle Ages, physicians prescribed it to lessen headache and cure snakebite. The onion is said to fight cancer. In China, where the people eat more garlic and onions than anywhere else in the world, the rate of cancer is 40% less than other parts of the world. In Georgia, where the Vidalia onion is grown, the rate of stomach cancer is 50% less than other parts of the nation. Extract of onion inhibits blood clotting. Onion reduces high cholesterol levels, and is said to stimulate the immune system. In people with diabetes, onion use lowers the fasting glucose level. Onion improves glucose tolerance and lowers insulin levels.

Culinary Uses of Onion

Three varieties of onion are most commonly used - the white, yellow and red. White is the most pungent, yellow is milder in taste and sweeter, and the red onion is the mildest and sweetest of all. The bulb of the onion plant is used raw in salads and as a topping or condiment. Onions are sautéed, steamed, broiled, pickled and deep fried. Onions add zest to cheeses and cheese spreads, meat pies, soups, stews, casseroles, breads, meat loaf, steamed vegetable combinations and stir fries.

How Onions are Grown

The onion plant is a biennial or perennial plant that grows from a bulb. A member of the lillium family, it can grow to a height of 4 feet. The stem is erect and carries the flowers in an umbel. There are 4 to 6 leaves, which are hollow and blue green. Flowers are small, white, pink or purple. Onion plants can be started from seed or sets. Seed is the cheapest way to go, but sets produce much more quickly. Onions prefer a rich, well drained and moist soil, with a pH balance of 6.0. They prefer full sun for optimum growth. In frost free climes, they can be planted in the fall. Elsewhere, plant in early spring after all danger of frost. Sow seed thickly and evenly in drills 1/2 inch deep. Plant sets about 1 inch deep with pointed end up and root end down. Besides regular watering and weeding, onions need little care. They are susceptible to onion smut and downy mildew, and from attacks by onion maggots and onion thrips.

Harvesting and Storage

When tops begin to yellow and drop to the ground, knock down the rest of the plant. Wait a few days and pull up the plants. Let them dry on the ground after pulling if weather is dry. If weather is inclement, take them inside and spread on a screen to finish the drying process. Onions are often braided or placed in a net bag for storage. Never store in the refrigerator.

The onion has a rightful place in any kitchen. It makes even bland dishes spicy and full of zing. With a long history of both medicinal and culinary properties, it belongs in any herb or vegetable garden. Give onions a try this spring in your herb garden.

Alden Smith is an award winning author and regular contributor to He writes on a variety of subjects, and excels in research.