Plant Profile: Allium cernuum

by Veronica Wisniewski, Fourth Corner Nurseries

Ostensible Origin of the Name: Allium is the ancient Latin name for garlic. Cernuum means drooping or nodding.

Common Names: Nodding Onion, Lady’s Leek

Range: Widely spread across the US and Canada and down into Mexico.

Pollination: Small short tongued native bees, such as Halictid bees, on foraging expeditions; fluttering by butterflies. In an apparent evolutionary adaptation, the nodding habit of the flowers favors bees, which unlike many other insects, are adapted to sipping nectar or pollen in a prone position.

Notes: Pulling our canoe to shore after successfully negotiating unexpectedly sizeable waves on the stretch of the Thompson River we were running, my nose is assailed by the pungent smell of onions. It is impossible to leave behind my botanical activities on these trips. I look up and the rocky shore, which was submerged by flowing water earlier in the season, is strewn with Allium cernuum and Gallardia aristata. The dainty pink blossoms contrasting with the bold butter yellow and burnt red blossoms are cheery and numerous among the large cobbles.

Allium cernuum favors soil with good drainage and a position in full sun. Reputed to be the most widespread North American onion, accounts abound of Native American people across the country eating the bulbs and using the leaves for a variety of medicinal treatments. Likely by example, Allium cernuum and Allium canadense fed Pierre Marquette and his crew on their journey from Green Bay to present day Chicago in the fall of 1674.

I pick a strand out of a large clump and eat it; the flavor is stronger than that of cultivated onions. The odor lingers on my hands the rest of the day lending credence to Allium cernuum’s reported powers of repelling moles, moths and biting insects. Could this be a substitute for deet? Only if one was satisfied with Eau de Allium as their signature smell. Maybe on my next canoe trip to the Yukon…

If you choose to savor, do not overindulge, eating large quantities of some native onions have resulted in cases of poisoning.