Each spring many lawns, gardens and pasture fields grow a crop of wild onions, a planted considered by most to be a weed. However, to the American Indian the plant was considered an important food, using it both as a seasoning and a staple.
In our area there are at least two wild onions varieties, each having the familiar dark green grass-like leaves that grow from underground bulbs, and have a characteristic onion odor. All are edible, though some are better eating than others. Probably the best tasting onion in our area is Wild Garlic (Allium canadense).
Its leaves are not hollow, but flattened, and originate mostly near the base of the plant. It grows 8 to 24 inches tall, and produces white flowers that grow at the top of a single stem in May. The underground bulbs of this onion are sweet and good eating after being parboiled and cooked in butter and the tops can be chopped and used on a salad or a cooked green. Cows also like to eat the tops of Field Garlic, which can impart a taste to the milk, something dairymen frown upon.
When gathering wild garlic, do not confuse it with another onion called Field Garlic (Allium vineale). This onion is edible, but has a very strong taste and odor that most folks don’t like. It looks similar to the other wild onions, but its leaves tend to be hollow, not flat. The leaves of this one originate on the stem rather than from the base. The best way to use this plant is to use the young tops chopped fine and used on a salad.
I don’t find much of it in our area, but wild leeks or ramps grow throughout the Appalachian Mountains and are probably the most renowned of the onions. It has leaves that are broad, smooth and lance shaped and has an onion odor. It also produces a flower stalk in June similar to the other onions. The ramp is considered the best tasting of all the wild onions.
If you want to know how to better identify wild onions and other edible wild plants, here are some good reference books: Stalking the Wild Asparagus, by Euell Gibbons; and A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, by Lee Peterson.
Steve Roark is the Area Forester in Tazewell, Tenn. for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.