The onion (Allium cepa L., from Latin cepa “onion”), also known as the bulb onion or common onion, is a vegetable that is the most widely cultivated species of the genus Allium. Its close relatives include the garlic, shallot, leek, chive, and Chinese onion.
This genus also contains several other species variously referred to as onions and cultivated for food, such as the Japanese bunching onion (Allium fistulosum), the tree onion (A. ×proliferum), and the Canada onion (Allium canadense). The name “wild onion” is applied to a number of Allium species, but A. cepa is exclusively known from cultivation. Its ancestral wild original form is not known, although escapes from cultivation have become established in some regions. The onion is most frequently a biennial or a perennial plant, but is usually treated as an annual and harvested in its first growing season.
The onion plant has a fan of hollow, bluish-green leaves and its bulb at the base of the plant begins to swell when a certain day-length is reached. The bulbs are composed of shortened, compressed, underground stems surrounded by fleshy modified scale (leaves) that envelop a central bud at the tip of the stem. In the autumn (or in spring, in the case of overwintering onions), the foliage dies down and the outer layers of the bulb become dry and brittle. The crop is harvested and dried and the onions are ready for use or storage. The crop is prone to attack by a number of pests and diseases, particularly the onion fly, the onion eelworm, and various fungi cause rotting. Some varieties of A. cepa, such as shallots and potato onions, produce multiple bulbs.
Onions are cultivated and used around the world. As a food item, they are usually served cooked, as a vegetable or part of a prepared savoury dish, but can also be eaten raw or used to make pickles or chutneys. They are pungent when chopped and contain certain chemical substances which irritate the eyes.
The onion plant has been grown and selectively bred in cultivation for at least 7,000 years. It is a biennial plant, but is usually grown as an annual. Modern varieties typically grow to a height of 15 to 45 cm (6 to 18 in). The leaves are yellowish- to bluish green and grow alternately in a flattened, fan-shaped swathe. They are fleshy, hollow, and cylindrical, with one flattened side. They are at their broadest about a quarter of the way up, beyond which they taper towards a blunt tip. The base of each leaf is a flattened, usually white sheath that grows out of a basal disc. From the underside of the disc, a bundle of fibrous roots extends for a short way into the soil. As the onion matures, food reserves begin to accumulate in the leaf bases and the bulb of the onion swells.
In the autumn, the leaves die back and the outer scales of the bulb become dry and brittle, so the crop is then normally harvested. If left in the soil over winter, the growing point in the middle of the bulb begins to develop in the spring. New leaves appear and a long, stout, hollow stem expands, topped by a bract protecting a developing inflorescence. The inflorescence takes the form of a globular umbel of white flowers with parts in sixes. The seeds are glossy black and triangular in cross section. The average pH of an onion is around 5.5.
Origin and history
Because the wild onion is extinct and ancient records of using onions span western and eastern Asia, the geographic origin of the onion is uncertain, with likely domestication worldwide. Onions have been variously described as having originated in Iran, western Indian subcontinent and Central Asia.
Traces of onions recovered from Bronze Age settlements in China suggest that onions were used as far back as 5000 BCE, not only for their flavour, but the bulb’s durability in storage and transport. Ancient Egyptians revered the onion bulb, viewing its spherical shape and concentric rings as symbols of eternal life. Onions were used in Egyptian burials, as evidenced by onion traces found in the eye sockets of Ramesses IV.
Pliny the Elder of the first century CE wrote about the use of onions and cabbage in Pompeii. He documented Roman beliefs about the onion’s ability to improve ocular ailments, aid in sleep, and heal everything from oral sores and toothaches to dog bites, lumbago, and even dysentery. Archaeologists unearthing Pompeii long after its 79 CE volcanic burial have found gardens resembling those in Pliny’s detailed narratives. According to texts collected in the fifth/sixth century CE under the authorial aegis of “Apicius” (said to have been a gourmet), onions were used in many Roman recipes.
In the Age of Discovery, onions were taken to North America by the first European settlers, only to discover the plant readily available, and in wide use in Native American gastronomy. According to diaries kept by certain of the first English colonists, the bulb onion was one of the first crops planted by the Pilgrim fathers.
Onion types and products
Common onions are normally available in three colour varieties. Yellow or brown onions (called red in some European countries) are full-flavoured and are the onions of choice for everyday use, with many cultivars bred specifically to demonstrate this sweetness (Vidalia, Walla Walla, Cévennes, “Bermuda,” &c.). Yellow onions turn a rich, dark brown when caramelised and give French onion soup its sweet flavour. The red onion (called purple in some European countries) is a good choice for fresh use when its colour livens up the dish; it is also used in grilling. White onions are the traditional onions used in classic Mexican cuisine; they have a golden colour when cooked and a particularly sweet flavour when sautéed.
While the large, mature onion bulb is most often eaten, onions can be eaten at immature stages. Young plants may be harvested before bulbing occurs and used whole as spring onions or scallions. When an onion is harvested after bulbing has begun, but the onion is not yet mature, the plants are sometimes referred to as “summer” onions.
Additionally, onions may be bred and grown to mature at smaller sizes. Depending on the mature size and the purpose for which the onion is used, these may be referred to as pearl, boiler, or pickler onions, but differ from true pearl onions which are a different species. Pearl and boiler onions may be cooked as a vegetable rather than as an ingredient and pickler onions are often preserved in vinegar as a long-lasting relish.
Onions are available in fresh, frozen, canned, caramelised, pickled, and chopped forms. The dehydrated product is available as kibbled, sliced, ring, minced, chopped, granulated, and powder forms.
Onion powder is a seasoning widely used when the fresh ingredient is not available. It is made from finely ground, dehydrated onions, mainly the pungent varieties of bulb onions, and has a strong odour. Being dehydrated, it has a long shelf life and is available in several varieties: yellow, red, and white.
Onions are commonly chopped and used as an ingredient in various hearty warm dishes, and may also be used as a main ingredient in their own right, for example in French onion soup, creamed onions, and onion chutney. They are versatile and can be baked, boiled, braised, grilled, fried, roasted, sautéed, or eaten raw in salads.Their layered nature makes them easy to hollow out once cooked, facilitating stuffing them, as in Turkish sogan-dolma.
Onions pickled in vinegar are eaten as a snack around the world, and as a side serving in pubs and fish and chip shops throughout the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. They are part of a traditional British pub’s ploughman’s lunch, usually served with crusty bread, English cheese, and ale.
Similar to garlic, onions can show an additional colour – pink-red – after cutting, an effect caused by reactions of amino acids with sulfur compounds.
Common onion group (var. cepa)
Most of the diversity within A. cepa occurs within this group, the most economically important Allium crop. Plants within this group form large single bulbs, and are grown from seed or seed-grown sets. The majority of cultivars grown for dry bulbs, salad onions, and pickling onions belong to this group. The range of diversity found among these cultivars includes variation in photoperiod (length of day that triggers bulbing), storage life, flavour, and skin colour. Common onions range from the pungent varieties used for dried soups and onion powder to the mild and hearty sweet onions, such as the Vidalia from Georgia, USA, or Walla Walla from Washington that can be sliced and eaten raw on a sandwich.
This group contains shallots and potato onions, also referred to as multiplier onions. The bulbs are smaller than those of common onions, and a single plant forms an aggregate cluster of several bulbs from a master. They are propagated almost exclusively from daughter bulbs, although reproduction from seed is possible. Shallots are the most important subgroup within this group and comprise the only cultivars cultivated commercially. They form aggregate clusters of small, narrowly ovoid to pear-shaped bulbs. Potato onions differ from shallots in forming larger bulbs with fewer bulbs per cluster, and having a flattened (onion-like) shape. However, intermediate forms exist.
I’itoi onion is a prolific multiplier onion cultivated in the Baboquivari Peak Wilderness, Arizona area. This small-bulb type has a shallot-like flavour and is easy to grow and ideal for hot, dry climates. Bulbs are separated, and planted in the fall 1 in below the surface and 12 in apart. Bulbs will multiply into clumps and can be harvested throughout the cooler months. Tops die back in the heat of summer and may return with heavy rains; bulbs can remain in the ground or be harvested and stored in a cool dry place for planting in the fall. The plants rarely flower; propagation is by division.
Hybrids with A. cepa parentage
A number of hybrids are cultivated that have A. cepa parentage, such as the diploid tree onion or Egyptian onion (A. ×proliferum), and the triploid onion (A. ×cornutum).
The tree onion or Egyptian onion produces bulblets in the umbel instead of flowers, and is now known to be a hybrid of A. cepa and A. fistulosum. It has previously been treated as a variety of A. cepa, for example A. cepa var. proliferum, A. cepa var. bulbiferum, and A. cepa var. viviparum. It has been grown for centuries in Japan and China for use as a salad onion.
The triploid onion is a hybrid species with three sets of chromosomes, two sets from A. cepa and the third set from an unknown parent. Various clones of the triploid onion are grown locally in different regions, such as ‘Ljutika’ in Croatia, and ‘Pran’, ‘Poonch’, and ‘Srinagar’ in the India-Kashmir region. ‘Pran’ is grown extensively in the northern Indian provinces of Jammu and Kashmir. There are very small genetic differences between ‘Pran’ and the Croatian clone ‘Ljutika’, implying a monophyletic origin for this species.
Some authors have used the name A. cepa var. viviparum (Metzg.) Alef. for the triploid onion, but this name has also been applied to the Egyptian onion. The only name unambiguously connected with the triploid onion is A. ×cornutum.
Spring onions or salad onions may be grown from the Welsh onion (A. fistulosum), as well as from A. cepa. Young plants of A. fistulosum and A. cepa look very similar, but may be distinguished by their leaves, which are circular in cross-section in A. fistulosum rather than flattened on one side.
In 2017, world production of dried onions was 97.9 million tonnes, led by China and India producing 25% and 23% of the total, respectively.
The Onion Futures Act, passed in 1958, bans the trading of futures contracts on onions in the United States. This prohibition came into force after farmers complained about alleged market manipulation by Sam Siegel and Vincent Kosuga at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange two years earlier. The subsequent investigation provided economists with a unique case study into the effects of futures trading on agricultural prices. The act remains in effect as of 2019.