Is there really an onion plant that walks? The honest answer….YES! Absolutely! Well now how can an onion plant walk? Here’s the story in a nutshell:
The Egyptian Walking Onion plant starts out growing just like any other onion plant in the early spring. It could be mistaken for an ordinary onion until around May. That’s when the magic happens. In May the Egyptian Walking Onion plant grows something marvelous at the top of its stalk. While all the other onion plants are busy growing a nice round puff ball of flowers, the Egyptian Walking Onion is growing miniature versions of itself! That’s right! It’s growing a cluster ball of cute little onion sets on the top of its stalk! As the summer months roll on, these cluster balls of topsets continue to grow to their full size, and can get pretty heavy for a tall onion stalk. Eventually, the stalk gets pulled over from the weight of the topsets, and they hit the ground, which may be up to 3 feet from the parent plant. If left to their own devices, the topsets will take root and grow new Egyptian Walking Onion plants right where they landed. The new plants will in turn grow their own topsets, which will eventually pull over, hit the ground, and take root. In this fashion, the Egyptian Walking Onion walks around the garden! Where they are headed is anybody’s guess.
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 the rest of your life! Egyptian Walking Onions are also called “Tree Onions, Egyptian Tree Onions, Top Onions, Topset Onions, Winter Onions, or Perennial Onions.” I like the name “Egyptian Walking Onion” the best. It was that name which drew me to this plant in the first place. I mean, an onion that walks? I had to have it! Read on to learn more about these fascinating onions…
Egyptian Walking Onions are one of the first plants to emerge from the garden in late winter/early 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 tasty! They are the solar panels that photosynthesize to create sugar to feed the plant and grow onion bulbs at both ends. Yes, both ends! These plants grow onions in the ground and in the air! You can clip some leaves at this stage and use them like scallions or chives. As the spring progresses, the leaves will make way for the dominant stalk that will grow up to 3 feet high! At the the top of the stalk, 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 because they literally are onion sets growing at the top of the plant. Every Egyptian Walking Onion plant will produce a cluster of sets at the top, hence the name, “Top Onion,” or “Topset Onion” meaning they are top-setting onions.
In the spring, topsets will form at the top of the stalk but they will be encased in a protective white papery sack so you can’t actually see them yet. I call this the “candlestick phase” because the plants look like tall and slender dark green taper candles with big white flames. Inside the little “paper bag” at the top, there may be mini green leaves all curled up in a spiral around the topset within. As the topsets grow, this papery capsule will eventually tear open to reveal the topsets inside. If the topsets have leaves, they will stretch themselves out and create a strange Medusa-like head of miniature onion “snakes” at the top of the plant. The candle stick phase occurs in mid-May in zones 5-6.
An Egyptian Walking Onion topset looks like, and essentially is, a miniature onion. They are complete plants in themselves and can be plucked off the stalk and planted directly into the ground.They look like mini versions of the parent plant. Topsets are generally smaller than the annual red, yellow, or white 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. The topsets reach maturity in late summer. In zone 5-6 this would be at the end of July. Many topsets have little green sprouts and even mini root nodules. Some have the Medusa effect going on, and others may sprout out a second stalk (branch) that will give rise to a second cluster of topsets, hence the name, “Tree Onion.”
During their first year of growth most Egyptian Walking Onion plants will not produce topsets. There are some exceptions to this depending on your growing conditions and how big the topset is that you started with. The bigger the topset, the better the chance that it might produce its own topsets in the same year, or during the next growing season. This is because a bigger topset will have more stored energy to put into growing and producing topsets. As for the average topset, you might see only greens the first year (first growing season.) But don’t be disappointed, your Egyptian Walking Onion plants will sprout again the following year in full force and produce their first clusters of topsets.
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. Flowers seem to occur more often in crowded situations when the plant is older and has divided in the ground for two or more years forming a large clump of around 20 or more bulbs in the ground.
Do they produce seeds?
Egyptian Walking Onion flowers really don’t get a chance to produce a seed. My guess is because they are competing with growing topsets on the same stalk. So an Egyptian Walking Onion seed is a rarity – at least I’ve never seen a mature and viable one.
That’s right! The WALKING stage! What other plant can you say that about! (Ok, there is a walking iris, and the walking palm.) When the topsets become heavy enough, they will pull the stalk over to the ground. If the soil conditions are right, the fallen topsets will take root where they land on the ground and grow into new Egyptian Walking Onion plants, hence the name, “Walking Onion.” They will literally walk right across your garden! Don’t worry about them being invasive. They can only move at about a pace of 2 to 3 feet per year. If you want them to stay put, just harvest the topsets. What to do with all your topsets? Plant them, eat them, or share them with neighbors and friends!
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 or clump of onion bulbs. New leaves, stalks, and topsets will grow from the clump of 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 can be as many as 50 bulbs or more in one clump after several years. It is a good idea to divide the clumps and thin them out because the topsets that grow from crowded clumps tend to be much smaller (1/4″ and under). Crowded clumps also tend to produce more flowers and less topsets. The plants themselves are smaller and so are the bulbs in the ground.
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 and form clumps. 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.
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! Some plants my produce lots of flowers and very few topsets. Every plant is unique and beautiful. They can be grown for both food and ornamental purposes. All parts of the Egyptian Walking onion plant are edible. Yum!
How to Harvest Your Egyptian Walking Onions:
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, share, or store your Egyptian Walking Onion topsets. If you want to store them, they need to stay in dark, cold, and dry conditions (more about this later).
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. To get bigger bulbs, keep the clumps thinned out to 2-8 plants per clump. If you do not divide and replant (or harvest) your clumps in the fall, the clumps will get bigger and bigger with many bulbs and they will be small. 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).
How to eat your Egyptian Walking Onions:
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 or shallot. The hollow greens may be chopped to eat like chives or green onions (scallions). 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 like pearl onions. Or just pop them in your mouth like popcorn! Watch out, they’re a little spicy!