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A fine onion that some just throw away

If you like onions -- creamed, sauteed, boiled, in soups, or whatever -- as much as I do, start looking for someone who has Egyptian, or tree, onions in his backyard. Right now he probably can't throw them away fast enough, and you will be doing him a favor by asking for some.

The fact is, these prolific little onions can take over in your kitchen very early in the spring, which is generally about the time you begin to run out of the more conventional onions you grew. At least, that's my experience.

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The onions that I pulled the second week in July are now hanging from the rafters in the garage. At the rate we eat onions they may just see us into early March. After that, it would mean turning to the supermarket but for the Egyptians, which literally grow like weeds. Last spring we ate them in one form or another most nights of the week. You can be this extravagant when you have so many.

The Egyptians, or tree, onion differs from others in that its seed stem produces tiny onions rather than conventional seed. When planted, these bulblets or sets grow to mature onions which, in turn, produce top onions the second year. What makes them particularly valuable in much of North America is that they are impressively winter-hardy and survive with ease under a light mulch.

It comes as a mild disappointment to me when discussing Egyptians with other gardeners who grow them only to find that they use the onions exclusively as scallions. They are so much more versatile than that.

This is how I use these onions:

Right now I am harvesting the little ones that grow on top of the stems.Some of the largest (they grow up to the size of a hazelnut) will be stored for use later as creamed onions at the Thanksgiving table or, if we find the time, turned into pickled onions.

The remaining bulblets will be planted 1 inch deep and fairly close together (about 3 inches apart in all directions). These will quickly send up green leaves and by late summer or early fall will make great scallions. If you dry the bulblets and store them indoors during the winter, they will provide more great scallions in the spring.

Meanwhile, the mature onions, many of which have separated into two or more plants, are being lifted and replanted 6 inches apart. I set these 2 to 3 inches deep in a compost-rich soil and see that they are well watered. I also mulch them with about an inch of shredded leaves and, come the fall, increase the mulch to about 6 inches in depth.

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These onions readily withstand normal frosts. The heat trapped in the soil by the mulch enables them to continue growing until well into fall. However, they die back after a solid freeze and go dormant for the winter. But, being so winter-hardy, they are among the first plants to send up green shoots in the spring. In this respect, they compete with the daffodils and the tulips.

By spring the mulch will have compacted down somewhat, but it is still several inches thick. This helps to make much more of the onion edible. When treated this way, the onion comes up looking more like a leek than a conventional onion. It has an egg-shaped bulb about an inch across and a white stem that continues up to the top of the mulch. All of this white stem (about 6 inches in length) is edible and delectable.

My wife tells me that the outer layer of white flesh is tough and must be peeled off before cooking. She frequently dices the onions and stir-fries them in with other vegetables or occasionally serves them boiled whole with a cream sauce. They always make a welcome addition to any soup.

A word or two of warning: The onions are very tender in the spring and stay that way until the seed stalk is nearing the flowering stage. At that stage the center of the bulb (the base of the seed stalk, in other words) cooks up as hard as wood and makes an otherwise delectable dish pretty unpleasant to eat.

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