Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


By Hugh Murphy

Allium cepa

genus:  Allium

common names:  meadow garlic, Canada onion

The name ‘onion’ is a general, blanket term used in regards to a number of different species of root vegetables of the Allium genus (Davidson, 555).  The exact origin of this diverse group of plants is unknown, but evidence of onions have been found the world over dating back more than 5,000 years (Davidson, 555).  They have been cultivated and consumed since prehistoric times and have been used extensively by the indigenous people of the western hemisphere. 

‘Onion’ originated with the Latin word unio meaning ‘single white pearl’.  The French called the plant oignon, which was later altered to onion by the British (Davidson, 555).

American Indians cultivated a variety of onions, but more often than not, their supply came from wild onions.  Wild onions grew heavily throughout all moist regions of North America.  They could be found in the prairies, open woodlands, fields and meadows in areas with adequate rainfall. 

Wild onions, like modern cultivated onions, are known for their distinctive odor. This strong odor was loved by some and despised by others.  The Monache Indians of central California believed this odor was responsible for the Pleiades constellation that marks the planting season for many crops.  They believed the Pleiades represented the six wild onion women who were banished by their husbands since they smelled strongly of wild onions.  The embarrassed women wove ropes and climbed into the heavens.  Their lonely husbands tried climbing after them but could not quite catch them.  The husbands are represented by the constellation Taurus (Kavasch, 207). 


Wild onion bulbs are the most commonly eaten part of the plant and are generally round in shape.  They range from very small (one inch) to very large in the hybrid varieties (over one pound).  Wild onion bulbs taste very similar to modern cultivated onions, but are usually much smaller in size. 

Wild onion bulbs produce one or more tube-like stalks that push up to two feet out of the ground.  These stalks usually have two leaves and are crowned with a cluster of six-petaled flowers (  Flowers are pink or white in color and bloom in April or May ( 

Onion bulbs are ripe when the flower tufts turn brown and droop on the stalks.  This usually happens between 100 and 130 days from seed germination (EOG, 797). 



Onions were eaten raw as vegetables by most tribes.  The Tewas and Hopis soaked fresh onions in salt water and at them whole with blue corn dumplings or piki bread (Niethammer, 98).  Bulbs were boiled, roasted or braised and added to soups and stews.  They were laid in the coals to roast or dried and stored for use during the winter months.  Tribes in the northwest and Canada cooked onions in the ashes alongside camas bulbs, caribou meat, lupine, carrots and fern (Berzok, 65). 

Onion stalks are also a popular food source.  They can be chopped and added to salads or meat and fish dishes in much the same way as chives.  The Shoshoni of Idaho are said to have preferred the greens to the bulbs (Berzok, 65).  

Other uses

Wild onion bulbs can be sliced and rubbed on the skin as an insect repellent (Niethammer, 99).  The Painte tribes of Oregon wove fresh, green stalks into mats which they used to cover their pit ovens (Berzok, 65). 



Berzok, Linda Murray. American Indian Food.  Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, 2005.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 

Niethammer, Carolyn.  American Indian Food and Lore.  New York:  Macmillan Publishing Co., 1974.

“Onions.” The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Rodale, 1968.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Wild Onions: Allium canadense.  The University of Texas.  <>