Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Allium Canadensis, or Wild Onion. Also known as wild garlic, like all of its relatives it’s actually a lily, scientifically speaking. Widespread and easy to find, its value as a wild food lies primarily in making other wild food taste better. Common as a lawn weed, you’ve probably had a hard time trying to get rid of it. Like most “weeds,” we think you’re making a big mistake by spraying or pulling it… it’s way more useful than that grass you’re working so hard to cultivate.
Wild onion is one of the most widespread native plant species in the U.S. You’ll find it throughout North America wherever its habitat needs are met. Those habitat needs include rich, moist (even damp) soil, plenty of sunlight, and plenty of water. It likes roadsides, open woods, lawns, and brushy areas. Much to many a farmer’s chagrin, it also loves low-lying pasture areas. Cows love to eat it, but it has the unfortunate side effect of making their milk taste like… you guessed it, onions.
Wild onion has grass-like leaves 6”-10” long that look almost exactly like chives. In the spring and summer, it sends up flower stalks with sprays of tiny, delicate white blooms. When dug up, it will have clusters of tiny onion bulbs about the size of your fingernail. Wild onion does have a few toxic mimics, especially flower mimics. The easiest way to positively identify it is by smell. Every part of the plant has a strong onion-garlic scent, and none of its toxic mimics do. Before you pull one, just break one of the leaves in two, sniff it, and you’re good to go.
Wild onion’s primary use is obviously as an edible. It’s not a bad survival food on its own – it is high in vitamin C, fiber, and trace minerals, especially sulfur. However, it really shines as a seasoning. If we’re being honest, most wild foods are pretty bland on their own. With some exceptions, the carb-heavy, nutritious staple foods like acorns, cattail root, and arrowhead potato all need some help to taste like something you’d actually want to eat. Wild onion can offer that help in spades. It doesn’t taste quite like an onion, garlic, or a leek, but rather a combination of all three. It’s a superb ingredient even in everyday cooking – if you’re short an onion, just go out to your yard and pry one out of the ground. The bulbs can stand in for white onion, leeks, or garlic, and the leaves work great as a substitute for chives or green onions.
Wild onion has a lesser-known use as a medicinal plant. A tea made from the whole plant works great as an expectorant, helping loosen up congestion from colds, bronchitis, or sinus infections. A poultice of the crushed roots also helps prevent infections and reduce swelling on cuts, bruises, scrapes, and stings. One of the most effective traditional uses of the plant is to crush up the leaves and rub down your whole body with them – it’s a surefire way to repel ticks, mosquitoes, biting flies, fleas, and other humans.
When you’re in a survival situation, be it a typical wilderness survival scenario, or a long-term grid-down urban/suburban survival scenario, morale is everything. Maintaining a positive mental attitude is paramount, and anything you can do to further that goal is worthwhile. A stew made from cattail roots or acorns or tree bark with some wild greens and a squirrel thrown in if you’re lucky is a pretty bland and meager meal. But add a handful of chopped wild onions and a salt packet – and well, you’re suddenly eating like a king. A hot cup of that can give you the strength to go on when all odds are against you and your world is falling apart. Your mindset improves dramatically and suddenly you begin to see solutions where before you only saw problems. Instead of sitting back and letting your situation control you, you stand up and take control of your situation. You rise above, and you PREVAIL. All because of some onions. Dramatic? Maybe. But it’s not wrong. A good meal at the right time can make all the difference in the world. And that’s why wild onions matter.
Want to learn more about wild edible and medicinal plants? Come to our Winter Wild Edibles seminar at TruPrep Marietta, Sunday, 2/18 from 2pm-5pm. $25. We might even eat some wild onion!