Walk Like an Egyptian
About the time that we moved into our current house, my grandmother gave me a pot of Egyptian walking onions. Winter hardy to Zone 3, they are perfect for Rockford, where many plants that are perennial in my native Michigan struggle to make it through our harsher winters.
I’ll admit that I struggle a bit myself, and not just with the winters but the summers. Growing up a mile or two inland from Lake Michigan, I never knew that other parts of the Midwest (or even of the state) didn’t experience the moderating effects of the Big Lake. Even after 15 and more years, I have my doubts that I will ever become physically native to this place.
The onions, however, are a different story. Doubting their hardiness, I kept them in that same pot for five years. They grew and slowly multiplied until, last spring, they had become root-bound. I prepared a seven-foot row in the middle of one of our raised beds and planted most of them, though I kept a handful in the pot as insurance against a harsh winter.
I needn’t have worried. The onions were the first green to appear in our yard this spring, and as I write in mid-June, it would take several pots to hold them all. They simply did what nature intended them to do: put down roots, absorb the nutrients of their newly native soil, and get about the business of creating the next generation.
Doing what nature intended is a bit harder for people, especially those once rooted in a different soil. The bonds of memory and affection call us back, convince us that life was better way down upon the Swanee River or in the more temperate climes of the Lower Peninsula. Thinking that putting down roots in new soil is somehow a betrayal of the people and the place from which we came, we close ourselves in and grow too slowly. Perhaps without even realizing it, we live as if we’re strangers in a strange land. Five years pass, then ten, then fifteen, and our sights are still set on the old folks at home.
The onions will grow differently here in the dark, heavy clay soil of Northern Illinois than they did in the rich, sandy loam of West Michigan. A discriminating palate might even be able to discern a difference in flavor. But they will grow, because they can put down roots. Onions grow better in good soil than in poor soil, but they need soil of some type to keep them alive. Leave them in the pot long enough, and there will be no soil left.
Egyptian walking onions have a peculiar means of propagation. They don’t divide under the ground, nor do they produce seeds, as most onions do. Instead, at the very tip of every stalk, three or four sets (little bulbs) grow. Until they mature, their only connection to the soil is through the parent plant. When they fall to the ground, or are planted by man, they make their first contact with the soil.
There are times, most often in the summer and winter, not to mention the spring and the fall, when the call of home can be almost overwhelming. We grab a few days here or there and go back to Michigan, to stay in the house where I was reared, to visit my soon-to-be 98-year-old grandmother on her farm (where my father recently moved her onions to just outside her front door), to walk on the beach and climb sand dunes and to eat the local delicacies of the summers of my youth.
And through it all our children, who love their grandparents and their great-grandmother, who enjoy the time we spend in Michigan, still ask, “When are we going home?” They have taken root in a different land, and lived there all their lives, and they are connected through the soil to other people, to different places, to their own summer memories and sights and sounds and smells and flavors.
To move them for more than a month or two, even back to the land of their father and mother, would be like pulling up an onion by the roots. Given time and sufficient care, the onion will likely thrive in its new soil, but it will never be quite the same as it would have been had it remained where it was planted.
No one seems to know how Egyptian walking onions got the exotic part of their name, but the walking comes from their habit of growth. As summer stretches into fall, the sets grow larger, and the stalks weaken. The top of the plant gradually bends until the sets reach the ground, where they send out their own roots, the stalk withers and dies, and a new generation begins. Unless the grain of wheat . . .
Left on their own, Egyptian walking onions will spread, moving outward from generation to generation, moving back to fill in the holes left by the death of their ancestors. Still, without the intervention of man, they will never move far. When man does move them, though, they simply bow to the demands of their nature. Giving no thought for the morrow, they put down roots once again.
This article first appeared in the August 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.