Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Wild Onions
Nature Bulletin No. 184    March 21, 1981
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

In 1673-74, when Father Marquette and his party journeyed from what is now Green Bay, Wisconsin, and returned by way of what is now Chicago. It is recorded that one of their chief foods was the "wild onion": probably the Wild Leek and the Meadow Garlic in the woods of Wisconsin, and the Nodding Onion so abundant in the wet prairies around Chicago.

Two of the first plants to push through the ground in spring, along with the skunk cabbage, are the wild leek and the wild garlic. A woodsman will eat handfuls of their tender leaves, which is all right if he stays in the woods away from people. Believe it or not, leeks, garlics and onions are "outlaw" members of the lily family. Their flavor and odor are due to an oil-like vegetable compound of sulfur which is volatile and dissipated by heat, making them more palatable when cooked -- particularly if boiled In 3 different waters.

The wild leek, which grows in rich moist woodland soils, has a cluster of bulbs on a short underground stem, and 2 or 3 broad flat tongue-like leaves which wilt and disappear before the plant blooms in June or July. The flower stalk, 4 to 5 inches tall, is topped by an umbel (like the ribs of an umbrella) of a number of white flowers. Cows will eat all the wild leek they can find, but it taints their milk and butter. The plant was a favorite food of the early hunters and fur trappers. pioneers had "leek parties" featured by leek soup.

Wild garlic, or meadow garlic, is common in moist meadows and moist open woodlands. It has only one small bulb, much sweeter and more palatable than those of the wild leek, and very narrow flat leaves. It blooms in May or June, and some or all of the pinkish flowers, at the top of a stem from 8 to 4 inches tall, are usually replaced by bulblets that are excellent for pickles. The underground bulb, if gathered in early spring or late autumn, makes mighty good creamed soup. The young leaves are good in salads, greens, or for seasoning.

Field garlic or Crow garlic, introduced into our eastern states from Europe, has spread as far west as Missouri. Preferring fields, pastures and lawns, and difficult to get rid of. It has a very offensive odor and is one of our most evil weeds. From its very small hard bulb, rise many slender hollow leaves and a flower stalk bearing a dense umbel of small greenish or purplish flowers which are replaced by bulblets about the shape and size of a grain of wheat. If eaten by cows, their milk is worthless. Wheat containing the bulblets is unfit for flour until they are removed.

The nodding onion has an oblong bulb from which grow very slender flat leaves and a 12 to 24-inch flower stalk curving downward at the top, with a dangling umbel of rose-colored or white bell-shaped flowers.

It grows on banks, hillsides and prairies in many parts of the United States, and formerly was so abundant in Illinois prairies that the landscape was tinged with pink when it bloomed in midsummer. The bulb is good to eat if parboiled, and excellent when pickled. Bulb and leaves can be used for soup flavoring, and the leaves can be cooked like asparagus or used as greens. An old home remedy for coughs and colds was onion syrup; and a remedy for earache was a little bulb of wild garlic cooked and placed, piping hot, in your ear.

Caution: Some plants with bulbs and leaves resembling onions, but lacking the familiar odor, are among the deadliest poisonous plants including the Death Camass and Fly Poison or Stagger Grass -- both responsible for the deaths of many grazing animals.

Some people boil wild onions in three waters and then throw them all away, including the onions.

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