As their scientific name "Allium proliferum" states, these hardy little onions are very "prolific." After planting them in your garden you will have onions every year for years to come! Egyptian Walking Onions
As their scientific name "Allium proliferum" states, these hardy little onions are very "prolific." After planting them in your garden you will have onions every year for years to come! Egyptian Walking Onions are also called "Tree Onions, Egyptian Tree Onions, Top Onions, Winter Onions, or Perennial Onions."
Egyptian Walking Onions are one of the first plants to emerge in the spring. The leaves poke up through the soil like little green spikes and shoot towards the sky despite the frost or snow. The blue-green leaves are round and hollow and will grow up to 3 feet in height. At the the end of a leaf stalk, at the top of the plant, a cluster of bulblets will begin to grow. These bulblets are also known as "bulbils" or "sets." We will refer to them as "topsets" throughout this website. Every Egyptian Walking Onion plant will produce a cluster of sets at the top, hence the name, "Top Onion," meaning they are top-setting onions.
In early spring topsets first appear encased in a protective papery tunic. As they grow, this papery capsule will tear open and eventually fall off.
The topsets reach maturity in late summer. Many of them have little green sprouts and mini root nodules. They look like mini versions of the parent plant. When the topsets become heavy enough, they will pull the plant over to the ground. If the soil conditions are right, the fallen topsets will take root and grow into new Egyptian Walking Onion plants, hence the name, "Walking Onion." They will literally walk across your garden!
Although the Egyptian Walking Onion is a top-setting onion, it will occasionally produce miniature flowers among its topsets. The flowers are about 1/4" wide. They have 6 white petals and 6 stamens. Each petal has a vertical pea-green stripe. Most of the flowers dry up and wither as the topsets compete with them for energy. So an Egyptian Walking Onion seed is a rarity - at least I've never seen a mature and viable one.
An Egyptian Walking Onion topset looks like, and essentially is, a miniature onion. Topsets produced by these plants are generally smaller than the ordinary annual garden variety onion sets. They range in size from 1/4 inch to 1 inch in diameter. Each cluster can have as few as 1 or 2 topsets, or as many as 30 or more topsets. Sometimes a new leaf stalk will emerge from a cluster of topsets like a little branch, and a second cluster will grow from it, hence the name, "Tree Onion."
In the ground, the Egyptian Walking Onion plant produces a small shallot-like onion which can be harvested. Once harvested, however, the plant will obviously not grow back. If left in the ground, the onion will divide and form a cluster of onion bulbs. New leaves and topsets will grow from the onions each year. The bulbs in the photo on the right grew from one mature Egyptian Walking Onion bulb in one growing season - 1 plant became 6 plants!
There is a lot of variation in Egyptian Walking Onion plants. Some plants form long, twisting branches and very few topsets, while others produce large clusters of topsets and no branches. Some plants grow only 2 topsets and others will grow 30! Every plant is so unique and beautiful. They can be grown for both food and ornamental purposes.
Egyptian Walking Onions are perennial plants and will grow back each year and yield new and bigger clusters of sets on the top and new onion bulbs in the soil - they will divide. During their first year of growth they will not produce topsets (although there are some exceptions depending on your growing conditions). You might see only greens the first year. But don't be disappointed, your Egyptian Walking Onion plants will grow back the following year in full force and produce their first clusters of topsets. Once established, plants may be propagated by division or by planting the topsets. Egyptian Walking Onions are extremely hardy plants. Our plants have endured harsh winters with temperatures plummeting down to -24° below zero! Hence the name, "Winter Onion." They grow well in zones 3-9.
Plant each "topset" in the soil about 2 inches deep. Soil should be slightly moist and well drained. Egyptian Walking Onions hate wet feet! Plant in rows about 1 foot apart. The sets should be spaced approximately 6-10 inches apart in each row. Plant in full sunlight. Partial shade is ok too, but full sun is the best for optimal growth. Egyptian Walking Onion sets can also be planted in clusters. When planted this way they make a great addition to your herb garden. They can even be planted in pots to be kept outside or indoors. They can be planted any time of the year even in the winter as long as the ground isn't frozen or covered with snow. However, fall is the optimal time to plant them so they can develop a strong root system and be ready for good growth the following spring. NOTE: Egyptian Walking Onions topsets will not produce topsets during their first year of growth (although I have seen the "jumbo" topsets produce tiny topsets during their first year of growth). Topsets will grow during the plant's second year and every year thereafter. The following is a list of what to expect when planting your sets at different times of the year:
Planting in the spring: This is a good time to plant your Egyptian Walking onion topsets. The topsets will grow throughout the spring and summer and develop tall green leaves and bulb/root growth in the ground. Since it is the plant's first growing season, it will probably not produce topsets, unless it is a huge (jumbo) topset.
Planting in the summer: Topsets planted at this time will grow roots and leafstalks, and have some onion bulb development in the ground, but they will not produce topsets.
Planting in the fall: This is the optimum time to plant your Egyptian Walking Onion topsets. Topsets planted at this time will grow roots and leafstalks only. The leafstalk will die back for the winter. The topset will develop into a small onion bulb in the ground and store enough energy to carry itslef through the winter. A leafstalk will reemerge in the spring and the plant will grow throughout the spring and summer to maturity. More than likely, there will be no topset growth the first summer, but some plants have produced topsets their first summer after planting in the fall.
Planting in the winter: Yes! You can plant Egyptian Walking Onion topsets in the winter as long as the soil is not frozen. If you can dig a 2" deep hole in the soil, then you can plant your sets. The topsets will not grow much at all - maybe a little bit of root growth only, unless you live where the winters are mild. If this is the case, you might also get a leafstalk. When planting in the winter, mulching is a good idea. In fact, mulching is good practice at any time of the year. Mulching keeps the weeds down, prevents unnecessary water evaporation and erosion, and fertilizes your plants.
Planting by Nature: unharvested topsets that are left to lie on the ground will self-sew. No planting necessary, they will grown on their own.
Harvesting the topsets: In mid to late summer and autumn the topsets may be harvested. The optimal time to pluck off the topsets is when the stalk has dried and turned brown. More than likely, it has fallen over by this time. Be sure to remove any topsets that have fallen to the ground if you do not want them to self-sow in their new locations. Despite their name, these plants are very easy to control and keep from spreading just by harvesting the topsets. You can eat, plant, or store your Egyptian Walking Onion topsets.
Harvesting the greens: The greens (leaves) may be cut and harvested at any time of the year. Just harvest one or two leaves from each plant. Be careful not to cut the stalk that has the topsets. Soon after you have harvested the leaves from an Egyptian Walking Onion plant, new leaves will start to grow in their place which can be harvested again. If you live in a mild climate, your Egyptian Walking Onion plant may produce greens all year round. In the fall after the topsets have matured and fallen to the ground, or after they have been harvested, new greens will start to grow - yummy!
Harvesting the onion bulbs in the ground: The onions at the base of the plant that are growing in the ground can be harvested in late summer and fall. Be sure to leave some onions in the ground for next year's crop. An Egyptian Walking Onion bulb is about the same size and shape as a shallot. Bigger bulbs may be obtained by cutting off the topsets before they develop. That way the plant can put its energy into the onion bulb in the ground instead of into the topsets. Note: if you harvest the onion bulb in the ground, you will destroy the plant - it will not grow back next year. So, if you want to eat the onion bulbs in the ground, make sure to replace them by planting topsets, or offsets from the bulb (divisions).
Egyptian Walking Onions taste just like a regular onion, only with a bit more pizzazz! The entire plant can be eaten. Shallot-like onions form at the base in the soil. They can be eaten and prepared just like any other onion. The hollow greens may be chopped to eat like chives or green onions. They are excellent when fried, cooked in soups, or raw in salads (my favorite). The topsets are excellent when peeled and fried. You can even pickle them. Or just pop them in your mouth like popcorn! Watch out, they're a little spicy!
"Egyptian Walking Onion" or "Walking Onion": The name "Egyptian" is very mysterious. The ancient Egyptians worshipped onions. They believed that its spherical shape and concentric rings symbolized eternal life. Onions were even used in Egyptian burials for the pharaohs. Small onions were found in the eye sockets of Ramesses IV. It is not known whether the Egyptian Walking Onion came from the Egyptians or not. The "Egyptian" part of the name remains a mystery. Maybe the name refers to the way they walk.....do they "walk like an Egyptian?"
The name "Walking Onion" was given to this plant because it literally walks to new locations. When the cluster of topsets becomes heavy enough, it will pull the plant over to the ground. Depending on how tall the plant is and where the bend occurs, the topsets may fall up to 3 feet away from the base of the plant. Here, if the conditions are right, they will take root and grow new plants. When these new plants mature, their topsets will eventually fall to the ground and start the process all over again. Egyptian Walking Onion plants can walk between 1 and 3 feet per year!
"Tree Onion": Egyptian Walking Onions are known for their ability to grow a twisting stalk from the cluster of sets at the top of the plant. Another cluster of sets will grow at the end of this second stalk giving the plant a branching, tree-like appearance.
The following three scientific names refer to the Egyptian Walking Onion plant:
Allium cepa var. proliferum
Egyptian Walking Onions are proliferous. A proliferous plant produces new individuals by budding. This type of plant also produces offshoots, especially from unusual places. In the case of the Egyptian Walking Onion, an offshoot will grow out form cluster of sets. Proliferous plants produce an organ or shoot from an organ that is itself normally the last, as a shoot or a new flower from the midst of a flower. In the case of the Egyptian Walking Onion, a cluster of topsets grows from a cluster of topsets forming a multi-tiered plant.
Allium cepa var. bulbiferous
Egyptian Walking Onions are bulbiferous. They produce bulbs!
Allium cepa var. viviparum
Eyptian Walking Onions are viviparous. They produce bulbils or new plants rather than seed. Egyptian Walking Onion sets germinate while still attached to the parent plant. They can be seen growing leaves and roots before they ever touch the ground.
Kingdom: Plantae (plants)
Subkingdom: Viridaeplantae (green plants)
Infrakingdom: Streptophyta (land plants)
Division: Tracheophyta (vascular plants)
Subdivision: Spermatophytina (seed plants)
Infradivision: Angiospermae (flowering plants)
Superorder: Lilianae (monocotyledon - having one seed leaf)
Genus: Allium (onion)