"The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves." - Bill Mollison

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Health By Allium

Last year we planted around 700 onions, by sets and seed, this year we hope to grow at least 1,000. It always amazes us how many we use and how fast we go through this dietary mainstay, there just never seems to be enough. Between onions, leeks, and garlic I will be planting well over 2,000 members of the allium family this year, mostly for this year's winter storage. Mrs. H always gets a bit aggravated when I exhibit stinginess with onions in the summer because I am worried about having enough to get us through until the next spring. This year I have decided to plant what I hope will be an excessive amount in order to avoid becoming an onion Grinch.

Alliums are one of the largest genus of plant species in the world, this family includes such edibles as onions, shallots, ramps, scallions, leeks, garlic and chives and are some of the oldest known remedial plants. We grow all of these, except for the ramps which are a form of wild leek, and I hope to get more into the cultivation of shallots and multiplier onions in the future...maybe this fall.

As a firm believer in the health benefits of natural food that is grown in ones own unpolluted non-toxic soil, as usual, I can't help but mention some of the best properties of alliums besides the obvious culinary aspects of this incredible plant species. Being a good source of vitamins B6 and C, along with various other nutrients such as protein, calcium, sulfur, fluoride, vitamin A and E they have long been used for medicinal purposes. These pungent foods are made up of hundreds of beneficial compounds promoting health through the antioxidants they contain.

Fresh and in varying degrees alliums contain sulfur and enzymes that combine when the their cells are damaged. This particular makeup is thought to be designed as a defense mechanism against pathogens in the soil. When attacked the cloves, or bulbs, immediately excrete pungent sulfuric compounds. This becomes quite obvious, especially in onions and garlic, when they are crushed or cut up. Once the cells are broken acids are released in the form of vapors that give onions their tear-inducing properties along with a distinct flavor and smell. The sulfuric acid causes a burning sensation when it reacts with moisture in the eye and then our bodies form tears to help dilute the acid in order to protect the eyes. The sulfur is known for it's antibacterial and anti-fungal properties, and helps stop allergic reactions and inflammation. The best part is that many researchers believe it is possible that one of these enzymes, "allicin"... highly concentrated in garlic, may be an extremely powerful antioxidant. Makes every onion tear I shed worth the irritability. As man made antibiotics continue to decline in effectiveness it only makes sense that we focus more on mother natures original bacteria fighters.

Alliums also contain strong antioxidant chemicals called flavonoids and phenolics which reportedly have been found to provide strong protection against free radical damage...free radicals are essentially atoms that break down cells in our bodies over time causing aging and disease. The over four thousand flavonoids that can be found in everything from apples to black tea are thought to help defend the body against these free radicals and may help prevent illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Flavonoids are not only anti-cancer but also are known to be anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-allergenic and anti-inflammatory and so on. The effects of high levels of quercetin, a flavonaoid found in onions, is being investigated as a reducer of blood pressure, and may help in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. What it comes down to is that even though much antioxidant research is unproven or unknown, the evidence in it's favor seems to be overwhelmingly positive.

Even without the advances in health and nutritional research that we have today, people far back in history were well aware that these foods had medicinal value as they consumed them regularly, perhaps daily, in order to protect themselves from not only getting sick but as a way to help in the healing process after illness had occurred. It is said that ancient Egyptians used onions to alleviate literally thousands of different ailments.

I have read many an article that has shown studies using these herbs may be just as effective as certain pharmaceutical drugs...without the side effects of course. Unfortunately these medicinal vegetables are probably considered a little too old fashioned to be prescribed by today's sophisticated medical intellects. But us poor country folk can still obtain the many benefits they may provide, especially as a preventative, by simply growing our own.

For this is every cook’s opinion,
No savoury dish without an onion;
But lest your kissing should be spoiled,
Your onions should be thoroughly boiled.

- Jonathon Swift

I must disagree with the Irish poet Jonathon as I think it would be better to spoil the kiss and eat some of the onions raw as we do daily in our salads and reap the many benefits rather then cook all of the goodness out. Either way I hope to reap a mighty harvest of this most versatile vegetable along with it's brethren... over 300 leeks, 700 garlics planted last fall, as many bunching onions as I can find a spot for and of course a few chives for our winter garden rows.


Chiot's Run said...

I agree, you can never have too many. I'm a little limited in space so I grow some onions and garlic, but I don't have enough to grow all of what we eat. This winter though I only bought 5-10 pounds of onions. This year I'm planting many more, not sure how many, but probably around 200-300 onions & 50-60 garlic.

randi said...

Holy Alliums!, you've reminded me I'll be needing to pick up some sets to add to those I've begun from seed. Always look forward to your terrific posts, thanks -Randi

Rhonda Jean said...

I love onions, garlic, leeks and chives. We eat them every day. We are trying them again this year but rarely have grow enough to do us more than a month. What is your climate like there? Do you have any hints for me for a successful crop?

Rhonda Jean said...

Hello again, Mr H. could you email me please. I can't find your email link. rhondahetzel AT gmail DOT com Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike,

Yum, alliums!

Now that we D.I.Y. we only "make do" with about half a year's worth of storage onions and 3/4 a year of garlic. I know: doesn't that sound AWFUL! Well, actually, we just change up: the onions are winding down and will be done by the end of this month, so our leek consumption goes way up to get them before they flower. Every night we get salad onions (green: be they multiplier or just small onions), and in a scant month and a half we'll have green garlic (my absolute favorite!) out of the greehouses...and chives, shallots, scallions, and even wild ramps. YOM.

Do email me: I can send you multiplier (Egyptian walking) onions and everbearing scallions (bunching onions) as ready-to-go plants if you'd like. I have plenty and can absolutely share. Plus, I like plants with a story, don't you? I look at certain things in the garden and think: oh those multiplier onions came from so-and-so...

Mr. H. said...

Chiot's Run,

I see by your posts that you're planning some expansion this year. It seems like I do that every spring as well and am still trying to figure out where everything is going to go this year. I will find a place for all those onions somewhere...I hope.


Mr. H. said...


I still need to find some sets as well, but am waiting as long as possible this year to get them. Usually I jump the gun and they start to mold or sprout well before I can get them into the ground.

Thanks for stopping by,


Mr. H. said...

Hello Rhonda Jean,

We are in U.S. zone 5-6 and have short summers and long winters, the last couple years anyway. I do not know all that much about Australia other than it has been hot and dry of late for you. Onions seem to prefer cooler conditions and a good 1" of moisture every week. I would try growing bunching onions, or any small bulb onion that agrees with your length of day.

If you have not already read his books, Steve Soloman has a great book about cold climate gardening that I often refer to and also has written "Growing Vegetables South of Australia" as he lives in Tasmania and is well versed in growing crops in hot dry climates.

What would a meal be without an onion,


Mr. H. said...

Hi El,

We always struggle with onions and this past year was no exception, I am letting the last of them sprout for greens. Garlic is another story, for the first time ever we ended up with an abundance. I may have to write a post about my battle with voles and garlic.

Normally I store all my leeks under row covers in the winter but as the weather has gotten worse the last couple of years I will be focusing more on storing them in our root cellar going forward.

It's been said that wild ramps can be found in the same areas that morels and wild asparagus grow, we have both in our vicinity, but I've yet to find a ramp

As far as plants with a story, I often walk the gardens in the early morning contemplating the origins of certain plants and how they came about in my garden. I'm also into the whole permaculture thing so I find it interesting to watch how newly introduced species do over time.

I will get back to you on the walking onions, thank you so much for the offer.

Thinking of green garlic and scape pesto,


El said...

Hey Mike, no prob; will send you some gifts, but now that I know you grow great garlic I might have to ask for some in return :)

Hey: the one thing I do with the onions who're *just* starting to sprout in April is save them as seed stock. Yep, I put them in the garden and let them go to seed, then save the seed from them...especially if they took forever to sprout this winter. I figure that's one way to both reward good growth AND saving the seed that happened to grow well in this particular part of the planet. Just, well, just make sure you mark them well: red onion seeds look just like yellow and white ones!

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