In Praise of Perennial Alliums

We love alliums but particularly onions in our family and the thought of cooking without onions was quite a challenge, especially for my partner, John. When I’d come back in from the garden with food for us to cook for the evening he’d look quite stressed at the thought of a meal without onions!! Of course we can grow ordinary onions up in Northland – the Institute has a Northland strain of Pukekohe Long Keeper that we’ve had very good crops from – but it isn’t easy and the crop isn’t guaranteed and in any case we never seem to be able to grow enough to meet our family’s needs.

Discovering the perennial alliums that the Institute holds in the Back Order collection has been a real blessing. I discovered Welsh Bunching Onions first and we enjoy these clump forming, spring onion-like onions very much – in salads but also used in cooking.

I have to confess though that my favourite of the perennial onions are the Egyptian Tree Onions. The variety that we have called Tree Onions Gerald de Koning are grown here in our garden and we just love them. These came to the Institute from Southland but have produced very good crops even up here in the Far North and I highly recommend them. Tree Onions (also known as “Walking Onions”) are a form of perennial onion. They form a clump of good sized onions over the growing season and often also flower and form bulbils on the top of the stem. This is what gives the Tree Onions their name – the flower stalk is tree-like (kind of!) with the cluster of bulbils at the top and once the bulbils become fully formed the weight can bend the stem down to the ground away from the mother plant and the bulbils can root. Hence the other name of “Walking Onions” as they “walk” across the garden.

We eat the larger of the onion bulbs and save the smaller bulbs for planting. One bulb planted results in a cluster of decent sized, elongated, brown skinned, mild, sweet onions. The bulbils are a bonus as these can also be planted. We use our tree onions in any way that other onions are used but I think my favourite is to roast them along with other veges. They have a beautiful sweet onion flavour when roasted and really compliment the other flavours. A few days ago we roasted Red Kuri pumpkin, Jimmy Nardello peppers, Paraparapara and Poporo kumara, Tree Onions and a few tomatoes together. Visually it was beautiful with all the different colours and the taste was amazing!

I plant my Tree Onions in May and harvest around December or January – this works well in Northland but the best time for planting does vary according to region. Our other Tree Onion grower, Richard Watson, told me he plants his bulbils straight away after harvesting in mid-february and that works well for him in his area (Canterbury). The most usual is to plant as I do in May or June but its good to experiment for what works best in your area.

The Brown Potato Onions are another good addition to our onion supply. These are also a clump forming onion but without the flower stalk. They form clusters of brown onions (can be as many as 12) that are smaller and rounder than the tree onions and also good to eat. Again you eat the largest but save good ones too for seed. These onions are great to eat roasted whole or peeled and added whole to stews but my absolutely favourite way to eat them is as lactic pickled onions. They are a perfect size for this, the pickling is very easy and they are deliciously addictive!

Additional comment – May 2019 – We now also have White Potato Onions in the collection. These are beautiful and like the brown ones make the most amazing pickled onions.

Garlic is of course another really important food and we’ve been growing several different varieties up here. It’s been great getting to know the new additions to the Institute range of garlics. I think the best this year has been Soft Top Pearl. This is one of the garlics that came to us from Henry Harrington so is from the South Island. This is the second year that I’ve grown it. It did well in Kaiwaka the first year and has been awesome up here in the Hokianga this year despite the prolonged drought we had. I grew two beds of it, an early planting (May) and a later one (June). I stuffed up harvesting the early bed – it looked amazing and the ends of the leaves had only browned very slightly so we left it well into January and when we harvested it the cloves had all sprouted in the stems. Obviously we couldn’t store the sprouted ones by hanging them up like or other garlics so we salvaged the disaster by pickling them. This has worked really well and we have jars and jars of garlic pickle to enjoy with our meals! Once I realised what had happened I harvested the later planted bed straight away which ended up just perfect. Big, firm, pearly white skinned bulbs of garlic. They are great because each bulb has several really big cloves that make peeling so easy. I’m very pleased with our crop and how they did in our hot, dry summer but some grown higher up one of the mountains near here did even better. These were grown by Simon and Shantina Land and are even bigger than ours. They are only a few kms from here but up high so colder but also they got all the rain that we didn’t get, so wetter too!


Another very good one this year has been Rocombole Early White. Again big firm, slightly cream coloured white cloves with a great flavour. As its a rocombole it also produces a flower stem that can be eaten. The flower stems on the rocomboles are such a bonus. We harvest them before the flower opens and usually eat them lightly stir fried – its like having a kind of garlicy flavoured asparagus. They are ready when the last of our stored garlic tends to have gone soft so we are missing that garlic flavour and removing them encourages the plant to put more effort into and therefore produce larger bulbs. Its a perfect system – we get an extra and delicious contribution to our food supply and improve the garlic bulbs at the same time!

New Zealand Purple are my favourite flower stems to eat – a good sized stem and very tasty! Great garlic bulbs too with the added bonus of being the most easy peel garlic I’ve ever come across.




The final garlic I want to mention is Rocombole Early Red. This is another beautiful garlic. Identical in form to Rocombole Early White except that obviously the skin is red. Like the early white this garlic came from the Henry Harrington collection in Southland but performs amazingly well even up here in the Far North. We usually plant in  April and it produces very well and very reliably.

Obviously these garlics have been in New Zealand for a long time and were presumably brought here by early European Settlers as they were such an important food plant back home. Last week I bought an old herb book being sold off by a local library. It was published back in 1969 and written by a New Zealander of clearly British ancestory. The author is very unimpressed by this “imported fashion” of eating garlic. Its quite hilarious – she describes garlic as “an evil smelling plant”, is very rude about the breath of anyone who has eaten it, and theorises that it was only eaten prolifically in continental europe because the quality of the meat was so bad! I’m just very glad that attitudes have changed and that garlic is widely accepted as important both for its nutrient and medicinal qualities.

As you can probably tell I’m somewhat of an allium fan so choosing which ones to talk about is a bit tricky. I think my other favourite, which is quite different to the ones I’ve already mentioned, is Society Garlic. I’ve only known this plant since coming to New Zealand but now wouldn’t be without it. It’s a perennial that has tuberous roots that spread to form clumps of plants. It grows all year round here, is a nice addition to the edge of a border or bed with its pinkish flowers, is drought tolerant, non-invasive and is great to eat. The name, “society garlic” comes from the assumption that, although it tastes like garlic, you don’t get bad breath from eating it (and so are welcome in “polite society”!!)

The strap-like leaves are eaten and have a mild enough flavour to be added to salads but can also be used in cooking or added as a garnish to cooked meals. We use it a lot in omlettes, in salads (it’s particularly good chopped into a salad of grated beetroot and carrot) and my latest favourite is to to chop it into home made yoghurt cheese – yum! The flowers are beautiful but also edible, they look great on a salad but my favourite way to use them is in our soft cheese.

Finally I want to talk about our other big success this year and another addition to my favourites list, Multiplying leeks. These are clump forming leeks that are perennial and so just keep on growing. I’ve grown these for several years and they’ve been good as an extra food source but have only ever formed clumps of pencil sized leeks for me. This year though they’ve done very well and have formed leeks with diameter about the size of my thumb. These were very welcome as we’d run out of other leeks and they were very tasty.

As I write this in May I’ve just finished the garlic and onion send out for this year and have just planted out most of my garlic and my tree onions. It seems a bit mean to be raving about all these varieties when, if you haven’t already got them, you’ll have to wait until next year. Its never too early though to start thinking about all the fantastic things you can grow next year and to plan your orders. If you check out the back order descriptions you’ll see there are many more amazing varieties that I haven’t been able to talk about. The website also has a wait list function so you can put your name down to be notified when items become available. Details of all plants in this category can be found here

Happy planning and growing!