January 14, 2014
Survival Skills: Finding Winter's Wild Onions - 1
by Tim MacWelch
Yes, it's a cold time of year to run around outside, just to forage for wild greens. Yet it's still worth the trouble, if you can find this pungent wild relative to cultivated onions and garlic. Grab your field guide, a small shovel and a bag to hold your greens because we're hunting down one of nature's wild super foods.
There are roughly a dozen different species growing in North America, which could fall under the name of "onion." Some species grow even in the dead of winter, favoring open ground and sunny conditions. Look in fields and meadows for some species. Look no further than your yard for other species. Some of these species are closer to garlic in appearance and flavor. Some are closer to chives. And some even bear a resemblance to leeks. The critical factor that all these species share is their membership to the allium genus. This group of plants is edible to humans, and generally very tasty. But don't just wolf down everything shaped like an onion. The broader family they belong to is the lily family, which can be a problem for foragers, because some lilies are toxic and resemble onions at first glance.
Your first step to make sure a plant really is an onion or garlic is looking for the classic shapes of a bulbous root and a rounded stem that onions and garlic share. Once it passes that test, go to the scratch and sniff phase of testing. Scratch the bulb, or bruise the green tops, and you should immediately smell the familiar oniony odor. If you start to have a few tears welling up in your eyes, all the better. Then you know you have an onion or garlic genus member for sure. Unless you're just sad, your crying spell was caused by the same process that goes on in your kitchen when chopping onions. The plant contains numerous sulfur compounds, which mix with the salt in your tears, to create a weak sulfuric acid—the cause of the burning eyes and crying while dismembering these plants.
These compounds aren't a bad thing, though. The sulfur compounds and a compound called allicin possess anti-bacterial properties. Eat more onions, and you may find your immune system boosted. Crush them up, and you can use the resulting mash as a topical field dressing for wounds. Wild onions are both healthy and tasty, which is a combination that's hard to beat.
Tell us about your favorite wild plant to eat in winter by leaving us a comment. Good luck and safe foraging.