Wednesday, June 21, 2006
The plant for today in the French Republican calendar is the onion. I love it that the French Republican calendar features a wide variety of plants, mostly useful ones. And I’m also impressed by how closely the plants chosen by the French revolutionaries align with their season in my neighborhood. Lindens which I featured a few weeks ago are now in bloom and, according to Steve Solomon, our local vegetable-growing expert, this is the month the overwintered bulb onions are ready to eat.
Onions belong to the Allium family (which also contains lilies), and are related to shallots, scallions, leeks and garlic. I’ve never had much luck growing them, but I realize after some preliminary research for this entry that there are many different kinds of onions, each one well adapted to a certain area, and I’ve not been growing the easiest onions to raise in my region.
The onion is a plant with a long history and a lot of folklore. It is believed that the onion originated in the steppes of Asia and probably grew wild all over the world. They are first mentioned in Egypt where they were fed to workers on the pyramids, and depicted in paintings as offerings to the gods. In Greece, athletes consumed onions to balance the blood and in Rome, they were rubbed on the skin of gladiators. Perhaps they recognized their antibacterial qualities and thus protected themselve from infection. Ibn al-Jamil, Egyptian 12th century physician, recommended onion juice rubbed on the penis as a contraceptive. One wonders if this is effective.
Although onions were used in cooking in Greece and Rome, they were also valued early on for their medicinal qualities. It was believed that onions could draw out putrefaction so they were rubbed on sores or warts, then thrown away or fed to the pigs. A country remedy mentioned in Funk & Wagnalls is made by hollowing out an onion, filling it with treacle (molasses?) and roasting it under embers, then smearing a paste of the outermost skins on plague or sores.
The fiery nature of the onion means it can be used to create heat. The Elizabethan herbalist Gerard writes “The juice of Onions snuffed up into the nose, purgest the head and draweth forth raw phlegmatic humors.” [I should think so, she says shuddering.] He also recommends anointing a bad head in the Sun with onion juice, which will “bringeth the haire again very speedily.”
The 17th century English herbalist Culpeper writes that they are plants of Mars. “They do provoke appetite, increase thirst, ease the belly and bowels, provoke women’s courses, help the biting of a mad dog, and of other venomous creatures, to be used with honey and rue, increase sperm. Being roasted under the embers, and eaten with honey or sugar and oil, they much conduce to help an inveterate cough and expectorate the tough phlegm.”
Funk and Wagnalls mentions several similar folk remedies. Onion syrup, made by boiling equal parts of onion and sugar over the teakettle, and swallowed slowly a teaspoonful at a time, is good for colds, phlegm in the throat, etc. While hot onion poultices, applied to the chest or tied to the soles of the feet, were used to get rid of chest colds and croup.
Onions were also used as protection charms. In some parts of the United States, black folks carried a red onion in the left hand or left pocket to ward off disease. In South Carolina, a necklace of small crushed onions was put around the neck of a child with diphtheria to overpower the disease. (This reminds me of the way garlic is used to ward off vampires.)
New England settlers hung a string of onions over the door to absorb germs and prevent them from harming the residents. These onions could never be eaten. The Shinnecock Indians of Long Island would put an onion in the sick room to draw the fever out; once having done so it would turn black. And scientists have confirmed the bactericidal effects of onion vapors.
It’s easy to braid onions to create one of these charms, just as it’s easy to braid garlics. Simply take a long piece of twine, tie it so that the two loose ends dangle down, then lay the stalks of the onion on top of the two pieces of twine and begin braiding as you would with any three part braid. As soon as the first onion is secure, braid in a second one.
Funk and Wagnalls records the belief that dreaming of an onion means good luck. African-Americans in Georgia create good luck by burning onion peels in the fire. And in the British Isles, young girls use them in love divinations. They scratch the names of four suitors on four onions and put them in the dark to sprout. The first one to sprout is the one she will marry. Putting an onion under your pillow on St Thomas Eve will also bring dreams of future spouse. Alas, St Thomas Eve is halfway around the Wheel of the Year at Winter Solstice.
Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about onions, plus links:
More onion information, including how to cook onions and recipes:
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, Wordsworth Reference 1991
Gerard’s Herbal, edited by Marcus Woodward, Senate 1994
Funk & Warnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, edited by Maria Leach, Harper & Row 1972
Solomon, Steve, Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, Sasquatch Books 1989
The lovely photo is from the National Onion Association