Fall and winter – when most of the vegetable garden is slumbering – is a great time to get a jump on next year’s onion, scallion, and shallot crop. Most members of the onion tribe (known botanically as Allium) are hardy perennials and biennials that tolerate winters in most areas of the U.S. Garlic (as discussed elsewhere on this site) is one well-known and often-grown example – but winter onions and shallots are also ideal winter-growing crops for USDA Hardiness Zones 6 through 9 (in zones 4 and 5 they need winter protection).
Edible ornamental bulbs (or is it ornamental edible plants?) are wonderful garden playthings. As welcome in a recipe as in a mixed border, they appeal both to our love of beauty and to our utilitarian, subsistence-gardening roots.
No plants go more to the root of edible gardening than the ones we know as flower bulbs (although most are not roots or bulbs in the strict botanical sense). From the moment humans discovered that many plants grow from nutrient-rich underground storage organs, we’ve been scratching the dirt harvesting and cultivating that subterranean bounty. At the same time, we’ve been captivated and seduced by the colorful things that many bulbs do above-ground. They’re a feast for the eyes and the palate.
Several other alliums make more handsome garden subjects. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) has long been treasured for its attractive clumps of hollow, quill-like leaves and its late spring to early summer globes of purple to white flowers. The somewhat similar (but much later-blooming) Allium chinense is a favorite potherb in its native East Asia, where it’s garnered a host of common names, including rakkyo and Jiao Tou. Also from East Asia, Allium tuberosum (commonly known as garlic chives) bears larger, looser heads of white flowers on 18-inch stems in late summer. The leaves and flowers make tasty and eye-catching embellishments for salads and other summery repasts. Whether eaten or not, garlic chive flowers should be deadheaded to prevent the prolific self-sowing for which the species is notorious. All the above thrive in sun and fertile, friable soil (amend heavy or sandy soil with Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend).
Shadier niches provide ideal habitat for two woodland onions traditionally harvested for their broad, piquant, short-lived leaves. The greens and bulbs of bear’s garlic (Allium ursinum) have played a part in European and North Asian diets for many centuries and still find their way onto menus (especially in chic restaurants). In eastern North America, the tasty, trendy woodland onion is Allum tricoccum, subject of traditional “ramps” celebrations over much of its native range. Over-collecting has rendered it relatively scarce in the wild, but ramps (as well as bear’s garlic) is usually prolific in the garden, spreading vigorously into large leafy clumps. An ideal way to slow it down in cultivation is to sacrifice a few leaves to a springtime omelet, stir-fry, soup, or other morsels. Its flowers are also edible; they appear on 15-inch scapes in early summer, after the foliage has withered. Bear’s garlic produces similar (but slightly showier) flowers in spring, while still in leaf. (Click here to read more about growing ramps at home.)
Springtime greens of a different sort are the stuff of Ornithogalum pyrenaicum. This high-rise star-of-Bethlehem is famous (at least in the neighborhood of Bath, England) for its succulent immature flower stalks that resemble asparagus spears. Formerly gathered from the wild and sold in markets in its namesake town, Bath asparagus is enjoying something of a culinary revival as a cultivated plant in Southwest England and elsewhere. Unharvested stalks mature into 30-inch spires of starry white flowers, which themselves are well worth a place in mixed borders and cottage gardens. Native to Southern Europe, Bath asparagus was likely introduced to England by Roman occupiers (who apparently also had good taste in ornithogalums).
Southern Europe is also the home of what is almost certainly the most valuable edible bulb: saffron. Several thousand Crocus sativus flowers are required to produce one hand-harvested ounce of this precious seasoning, which is literally worth its weight in gold. Most of the world’s saffron crop comes from Iran, but it’s been cultivated for centuries in many other areas including Pennsylvania’s Amish country. It is not known in the wild.
Crocus sativus has three sets of chromosomes and is unable to produce seed, suggesting that it probably originated as a hybrid or mutation of another crocus species (Greek native Crocus cartwrightianus is the leading candidate). Several other close relatives (including C. pallasii and C. oreocreticus) of saffron crocus also occur in Southeast Europe, all of them carrying the characteristic fragrant, orange-red stigmas at the centers of their purple to lavender, mid-autumn blooms. Crocus sativus and its relatives prosper in full sun and rich fertile soil in USDA Hardiness Zones 6 to 9. They’re perfect for planting near an entryway, where their tasty stigmas can be readily harvested for that next loaf of saffron bread.
Edible bulbs offer possibilities for all sorts and sizes of ornamental plantings, from a container of herbs to a permaculture landscape. Dig in!