Knowing your onions

It’s easy to tell the different between onions, leeks and garlic isn’t it

  • Onions – round mono bulbs, tubular leaves, taste and smell of onions
  • Leeks – Long strap like leaves, long white cylindrical body, no real bulb
  • Garlic – round heads consisting of several cloves, covered with a papery skin and smells/tastes strongly of garlic

Easy.  But things aren’t as easy once you get away from the standard cultivated varieties and move into wild or traditional types of alliums.

    Brief Potted History Of The Names

The name “Leek” stems from the old Anglo-Saxon work “leac” and was applied to any allium, be it a leek onion or garlic.

Onion is derived from the French oignon”.  The loan work would have entered the English language after the Norman invasion – French words were often used for the high status objects with the equivalent Anglo Saxon words used for the low status version.

Chives also entered the English language from the “cive”.

Garlic derives from two Anglo-Saxon words “Gar” meaning spear and “Laec” so it is a spear leek.

So before Norman times all alliums would be leeks, after the Norman conquest the higher status alliums became onions with the lower status varieties staying as leeks.

As the split in the meaning became set in the English language, plants became defined and placed as either an onion, garlic or leek (or sometimes chive).   Some alliums may have local or alternative names putting them into more than one of the groups (e.g. nodding onions/chives)

These nomenclature traditions have led to gardeners and cooks getting confused by the fact that Elephant Garlic is a leek, Wild Leeks taste of garlic and cultivated leeks DO form bulbs and bulbils like galic.

So we shouldn’t be surprised if a garlic is actually a leek that tastes of onions.


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