If you find growing onions from seed or sets too demanding, try the Egyptian onion, also called tree onion, top-setting onion, or Egyptian walking onion (Allium x proliferum, syn. Proliferum cepa), a hybrid between the classic garden onion (A. cepa) and the Welsh onion (A. fistulosum). It’s a perennial plant grown from a bulblet (bulbil and set are other names for the small bulb that is used). During the summer, it produces a flower stalk about 2 feet (60 cm) high, often twisted at the tip and on that are found several to many bulblets (often called “top sets”). It is mainly these bulblets that you’ll be harvesting.
If this plant is also called the Egyptian walking onion or simply walking onion, it’s because of a most curious habit. If you don’t harvest the bulblets when the flower stem dries up at the end of the summer, the weight of the bulblets causes it to bend down and touch the ground at a certain distance form the mother plant. There the bulblets take root, forming a new clump. Thus, the plant can “walk” through your garden.
By why “Egyptian onion”? After all, this plant did not yet exist at the time of the ancient Egyptians. It’s suspected that name came from the Romani people, called “gypsies”, short for Egyptians, who may have helped spread the plant throughout Europe.
Since the Egyptian onion is a very hardy perennial (zone 4, even zone 3 under a thick layer of snow), it will come back year after year, ensuring an annual harvest without you having to replant it. After a few years, when the clump becomes too dense, you can also divide the bulbs that grow in the ground (they’ll be about the size of a scallion), replanting some, but using the surplus for cooking.
Easy to Grow
The Egyptian onion is a snap to grow. Plant bulblets in a sunny spot in any well-drained soil, even sandy or very poor, barely covering them. The most logical time to plant them is in autumn (August, September or October, even November in mild climates), when the bulblets are mature, but some merchants offer plants in the spring. Note that the first year’s harvest is limited: it’s in the second and following years that you’ll get your money’s worth.
If you can’t find Egyptian onions locally (you may have more luck finding them in a farmers market than a garden center), try mail order suppliers, such as The Egyptian Walking Onion, Territorial Seed Company, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in the United States and Richters Herbs or Eagleridge Seeds in Canada.
In addition to classical Egyptian onion, there is also a cultivar with larger bulbils, ‘Red Catawissa’, but it is hard to locate.
Cooking With Egyptian Onions
Use the bulblets in any recipe that requires onions or green onions. You can start harvesting the very young bulbils, as big as peas, early in the summer, or at maturity, in late summer or fall. You can even harvest the leaves of your Egyptian onion for use as green onions. No more than one or two leaves per bulb, however, or you’ll weaken the plant. And you can harvest divisions either in the fall, for larger bulbs, or in early summer, before the bulbs have formed, for use as green onions.
Voilà: a perennial onion that grows all on its own, perfect for the laidback gardener!