By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer
Unlike most onion varieties, Egyptian walking onions (Allium x proliferum) set bulbs at the top of the plant – each with numerous small onions that you can harvest for planting or eating. Egyptian walking onions taste much like shallots, although slightly more pungent.
When the bluish-green stalk gets top-heavy, the stalk fall over, creating new roots and a new plant where the bulbs touch the ground. One Egyptian walking onion plant can travel 24 inches (61 cm.) each year, resulting in up to six new plants. Egyptian walking onions are known by several names, including top-set onions and tree onions. Need more walking onion information? Read on to learn about this interesting, attractive plant.
Although it’s possible to plant Egyptian walking onions in spring, you won’t be able to harvest onions until the following year. The ideal planting time for growing walking onions is between summer and the first frost for a harvest the next growing season.
Set the onion bulbs in the soil about 2 inches (5 cm.) deep, with 6 to 10 inches (15-25 cm.) between each bulb if you like big, pungent onions. On the other hand, if you prefer a steady harvest of green, milder onions, or if you want to use the stalks like chives, plant the bulbs 2 to 3 inches (5-8 cm.) apart.
Like all their onion cousins, Egyptian walking onions don’t appreciate heavy, wet soil. However, they are easy to grow in full sun and average, well-drained soil with a pH between 6.2 and 6.8.
Egyptian onions are perennial and they will eventually walk across your garden. However, they are easy to control and aren’t considered invasive. Leave a few plants in your garden every year if you want the plants to keep walking for decades to come, but pull any that walk where they aren’t welcome.
Egyptian onion care is uninvolved and basically just requires keeping the soil lightly moist, but never soggy or drenched.
Otherwise, thin the plant as needed and divide the mother plant whenever it becomes overgrown or less productive – usually every two or three years.
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|Plant Habit:||Herb/Forb |
|Life cycle:||Perennial |
|Sun Requirements:||Full Sun to Partial Shade |
|Water Preferences:||Mesic |
|Minimum cold hardiness:||Zone 3 -40 °C (-40 °F) to -37.2 °C (-35) |
|Maximum recommended zone:||Zone 9b |
|Flower Time:||Summer |
|Underground structures:||Bulb |
|Uses:||Culinary Herb |
|Edible Parts:||Stem |
|Eating Methods:||Culinary Herb/Spice |
|Dynamic Accumulator:||K (Potassium) |
|Resistances:||Deer Resistant |
|Propagation: Seeds:||Can handle transplanting |
Other info: Rarely ever actually makes seeds
|Propagation: Other methods:||Other: Bulblets produced at the end of flowering stems, also, the plant spontaneously will split and start growing new onions next to it. |
|Miscellaneous:||Tolerates poor soil |
|Parentage :||Allium cepa x Allium fistulosum|
Its flowers turn into bulbils, which are like miniature onion bulbs. The weight of the bulbils causes the flower stem to lean over. Wherever it touches the ground, it roots and produces a new plant. This is how the onion "walks" and expands itself. Cut a few leaves to use in cooking as green onions (I do this later in the spring when it begins to flower so that I won't cut off the precious flower stalks by accident). Also, in late summer pull up and harvest the bulbs, but leave some bulbs and bulbils in place so that the onion patch will come back next year. Give some bulbils to friends to share the fun.
This is my favorite plant of all time! I have grown Egyptian Walking Onions for over 10 years. I love these plants so much that I started my own website about them and I sell them online. I grow Egyptian Walking Onions in several locations in eastern Washington in zone 6. They are beautiful to look at and wonderful to eat. I love to just gaze upon my plants because of their Medusa-like "heads" and their highly unique individuality. Every plant is different. Some plants may have only two big topsets, and others may have over 50 topsets! Some may have a ball of white flowers for a "head" and some may have a round cluster of topsets for a "head," perhaps with a twisting branch leading up to another cluster ball of topsets -- a "two-headed" onion plant! They surely make a great subject for the botanical photographer. The Egyptian Walking Onion plant is also very prolific (hence the Latin name Allium x proliferum). In the ground, one plant will divide into many over a few years and form a clump of onion bulbs. As clumps get bigger, the plants become more crowded, and the bulbs, though many, do not grow as large. The topsets tend to be smaller as well, and small white flowers dominate over topsets. Plant height also decreases with crowding. Dividing the bulbs every few years is a good idea for an overall increase in plant size both in the ground and above the ground. Above the ground, these plants grow wonderful little topsets which are basically miniature versions of the mature plant itself. The topsets typically form a cluster at the top of the plant, and when they become heavy enough, they will pull the plant stalk over and hit the ground. If the conditions are right, the topsets will take root where they touched down and grow new plants. This is how the Egyptian Walking Onion "walks" around your garden!
This is the standard among topsetting onions. The plant is perennial, and a patch of them will grow in the wild for years. The topsets make nice pearl onions and are quite flavorful in soups. Both the plant and the small bottom bulb are quite pungent. For those who like pungency, these are very useful as spring onions or scallions.
I've grown these for years. They multiply quickly, and they easily survive the winter. Even the bulblets can handle sitting on the ground and being exposed to freezing temperatures and sun.
I typically use the older plants in the spring as green onions. They are good sautéed and then added to an omelette. Later in the season, the leaves and flower stems get too tough to eat. I leave a few plants in each clump, and they split each year, and even grow if they are surrounded by quackgrass.
Start harvesting the green onions when the tops are 4 to 8 inches tall. Loosen the soil under the undeveloped bulbs and pull them from the soil. Green onions are immature onions and can be harvested from any onion variety. Use green onions fresh or store in the refrigerator for up to a week. It is best to harvest green onions as needed for the freshest flavor.
Harvest mature walking onions bulbs from the top of the stalks when they are 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter, about the size of a shallot or a pearl onion. Along with the bulbs that form on the top of the stalks, walking onions produce edible bulbs below the ground. Dug up the plants to harvest the below-ground bulbs. Store the onion bulbs in a mesh bag or box at 32 to 50 F for up to a year.
Photo: Penny Woodward
Walking onions are also known as tree onions, growing well from the sub-tropics to cold temperate regions, and autumn and winter are the best time to plant them. They are now botanically classified as Allium x proliferum as they have been shown through genetic testing to be a cross between the common onion (Allium cepa) and the welsh onion (Allium fistulosum).
The easiest to grow of all onions, these onions are also known as Egyptian and top-setting onions. They grow in any soil with reasonable drainage, but if you want big fat bulbs then dig in compost and horse, cow or sheep manure a few weeks before planting. Grow from bulbs planted with just the top poking out of the soil, or from single bulbils planted just under the surface of the soil, in a position with full sun. Space plants about 40cm apart and they will grow to be about 60cm tall. Tubular, typically onion leaves grow from the bulb and over the next few weeks new bulbs start to form around the original, about 6 in total. Later, a strong central flower stem pushes up from the centre of the clump, with bulbils instead of flowers forming at the top. These bulbils then start to grow green leaves so that the whole plant looks like a small, weird, prehistoric tree. The name walking onion comes from the way the heavy tree tops fall over, so that the bulbils are resting on the ground. These will then grow new leaves, new tops and fall over again, thus slowly walking across the garden.
Bulbs can be dug up about 5 months after planting. Save some bulbs for replanting or just replant the bulbils and eat the bulbs. There seems to be some variation in flavour of the bulbs, some being more mild and sweet and others stronger. There are also types with more red than brown skins. Both bulbs and bulbils have similar onion flavours and make an excellent substitute for brown onions in any dish.
I have started harvesting my first crop for the season: Egyptian Walking Onions. They grow under the snow during the winter and are ready for harvest about 3 weeks after our winter snow cover melts. My father calls them forever onions because they continue to produce food for my family until covered with snow in the fall. The strain I am growing was collected from my great-grandfather's garden.
I love the taste of walking onions. They are robustly flavored without the strong sting that is so disagreeable to me in some varieties of onion.
In my climate walking onions produce scallions (green onions) during the entire growing season. In hotter climates they may form a dormant bulb during the hottest part of the summer. The bulbils may be eaten as well. The bulbils are small, so I like using them in dishes that don't require peeling such as pickles or roasted onion.
Walking onions are a hardy perennial. In my climate they can be planted or harvested any time of year except when the ground is frozen. If pulled, the roots and a small piece of bulb may be replanted. They'll grow a new plant. They may be propagated by planting the bulbils that form on top of the flower stalk, or by digging and dividing the mother clump. There are a few weeks after the flower stalk forms in which the stem becomes hard and undesirable. New bulbs form beside the flower stalk producing tender bulbs later in the season.
I typically keep a perennial mother clump to generate bulbils that I harvest and store in a dry area. I then replant the bulbils every few weeks as an annual to grow successive crops of green onions for market and to feed my family.
Egyptian onions are an inter-species hybrid between bulbing onions and bunching onions. The plants produce a few flowers, but as far as my plant breeding network has been able to determine, they may be sterile and produce few if any viable seeds. Oh no! One of those sterile plants that I was badmouthing the last couple of blogs. I did that deliberately to demonstrate that I'm willing to grow some sterile plants if fertile substitutes can't be found. I used to grow sterile potatoes, but successfully transitioned to only growing fecund potatoes that produce true pollinated seeds. I also grow garlic and seedless grapes which are both sterile. Eventually I'll transition to only growing fertile garlic, but I can't foresee totally giving up my seedless grapes.
I have a small patch of onions my garden which is planted to both bulbing onions and bunching onions. I allow them to flower together. I am hoping to eventually find some inter-species hybrids among the offspring. This will create more biodiversity among my tree onions and allow them to avoid the eventual fate of clones: a combination of pests, diseases, or weather that overcomes the plants defenses. My ancestor's clone has been going strong for more than 70 years, but it could meet it's demise any decade now.
I am also using pollen from both parent species to pollinate the top setting onion flowers. Perhaps that will be the kick they need to set seed.