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2003 MHS Herb of the Year -
The Alliums - An Introduction

Herb of the Year – The Alliums
Edible Alliums Cookbook By Debbie Cravens

This year the Madison Herb Society has decided to declare the genus Allium (al’-le-um) as its Herb of the Year. What, you may wonder is the genus Allium? “I’ve never heard of that herb.” If you’ve used garlic, chives, onions, scallions, and the like in your cooking, then you are familiar with the genus Allium. Members of the Lily family (Lilaceae), they certainly don’t smell as sweet. Tucker and DeBaggio in "The Big Book of Herbs" tell us that “the Celtic all, which translates as ‘pungent’ or stinky,’ supplied the original basis for the Latin name of this genus, and it describes an aromatic characteristic that certainly epitomizes it.”

In this introduction to the genus I will merely be covering the very top layer of a genus that has about 700 species. Please consider adding information to this article with your experiences growing any number of these wonderful edible and ornamental plants.

The genus Allium consists of strong-smelling, bulbous or rhizomatous biennials and perennials native to the
northern hemisphere, Ethiopia, southern Africa, and Mexico, varying in hardiness according to origin. The genus has subbasal hollow leaves and flowers in a terminal umbel that emerges from a membranous, leafy cap. Various alliums have been cultivated since the earliest times and are universally important as vegetables,
flavorings, and medicinal plants. Their distinctive smell varies in pungency from species to species, and a few are almost odorless. Quite a number are used as ornamentals and in fact, some, such as chives and garlic chives serve as both edible and ornamental.

Here is a list of some of the edible alliums:

  • Garlic (Allium sativum - al’-le-um sa-te’-vum)
  • Chives (A. schoenoprasum – skoyn-o-prah-sum)
  • Garlic Chives, Chinese chives, Oriental Chives (A. tuberosum – tu-be-ro’sum)
  • Welsh onion, Japanese bunching onion (A. fistulosum – fis-tew-lo’-sum)
  • Elephant Garlic, Leeks (A. ampeloprasum - am-pel-o-prah’-sum)
  • Ramps (A. trococcum – tri-cok’-kum)
  • Rocambole (A. sativum var. ophioscorodon)
  • Ramsons (A. ursinum – ur’sin-um)
  • Onions, Shallots, Bulb Onions, Cipolline and others (A. cepa – ke’pa)

For a clear understanding of this genus, check out the books "Garlic, Garlic, Garlic" ($16.00 paperback) and "Onions, Onions, Onions" ($14.95 paperback) both by Linda & Fred Griffith. Along with hundreds of recipes for their use you’ll learn much about these plants - from fact to folklore.