“…And, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath.”

Wm. Shakespeare, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Act 4, scene 2

What would we do without the genus Allium? I am convinced that our kitchens and dinner tables (and literature) would much duller in its absence.

Allium is what we call a “genus”… which is to say, a collective name for any number of closely related species. (The plural word for “genus” is “genera”, and a number of related genera will be placed together within a given family.) Allium is the genus that gives us onions and all their many relatives: there are hundreds of wild species, and of course, several of them have been cultivated and enjoyed for thousands of years. The thing about all of these species is that almost invariably give off an oniony or garlicky scent, and to me, that is what makes them so wonderful. The scent comes from a variety of volatile sulfur-containing organic compounds which are released into the air when the tissues of the plant are wounded. By the way, botanists have traditionally placed this genus within the lily family (“Liliaceae”), but more recent treatments have it within its own family, the Alliaceae

What’s your favorite species of Allium? How about A. cepa, which gives us the common kitchen onion, as well as shallots and scallions, and of course, Vidalia onions? Or maybe A. sativum, famously known worldwide as garlic. Delicious and nutritious leeks are a cultivar of A. ampeloprasum. Ramps from the Appalachians, with their super-strong odor, is A. tricoccum, and mild-mannered chives are A. schoenoprasum. By the way, there are also plenty of attractive Allium species known for their garden appeal…and there are also a good many weeds: you might have “wild onion” (A. canadense) or “wild garlic” (“A. vineale) in your front yard. Or maybe both! These weeds sometimes grow together. Both have an oniony smell.

Our Mystery Plant is an Allium, originally native to eastern Asia, most likely China. It is widespread now, easily cultivated just about everywhere in gardens. Below the ground will be narrow bulbs connected to rhizomes. The leaves are all basal, very smooth, hollow, and somewhat flattened. The flowering stalk is totally leafless (as with all the other Allium species), up to about 2 feet tall (maybe more) and the flowers appears in a single cluster at the top of this stalk. Each flower is star-shaped, with six-pointed tepals and six stamens. The flowers are mildly fragrant. After blooming, each ovary swells a bit into a three-compartmented capsule. The seeds are black. In our garden we have this growing in an old planter. Been there for years, and mostly neglected. But each early autumn it blooms like crazy. Very attractive.

Now you might be thinking that this essay and the photo are all about regular old chives, the kind that goes, chopped up, on your baked potato. Our Mystery Plant does resemble chives, but each of its flowers is on a longish, slender stalk. Even more distinctive is its odor: it has a very distinctive garlic flavor. Try some!

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John Nelson is the retired curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or email johnbnelson@sc.rr.com.

Editor

I have been editor of the Rockdale Citizen since 1996 and editor of the Newton Citizen since it began publication in 2004. I am also currently executive editor of the Clayton News Daily, Henry Daily Herald and Jackson Progress-Argus.

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