Onion

The onion (Allium cepa L., from Latin cepa “onion”), the most widely cultivated vegetable of the genus Allium. Its close relatives include the garlic, shallot, leek, chive and Chinese onion. The word onion comes from the Latin word ‘unio’ meaning unity, because it grows as a single bulb.

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The onion is most frequently a biennial or a perennial plant but is usually treated as an annual and harvested in its first growing season. Onions are cultivated and used around the world. As a food item, they are usually served cooked, as a vegetable or part of a prepared savoury dish, but can also be eaten raw or used to make pickles or chutneys.

The onion plant has a fan of hollow green leaves and its bulb at the base of the plant begins to swell when a certain day-length is reached. The bulbs are composed of shortened, compressed, underground stems surrounded by fleshy modified scale (leaves) that envelop a central bud at the tip of the stem. In the autumn (or in spring, in the case of overwintering onions), the foliage dies down and the outer layers of the bulb become dry and brittle. The crop is harvested and dried and the onions are ready for use or storage.

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The geographic origin of the onion is uncertain because the wild onion is extinct and ancient records of using onions span all over Asia. The first cultivated onions are the subject of much debate, but the two regions that many archaeologists, botanists, and food historians point to are central Asia or Persia. They were probably almost simultaneously domesticated by peoples all over the globe, as there are species of the onion found the world over. Food uses of onions date back thousands of years in China, Egypt and Persia. Traces of onions recovered from Bronze Age settlements in China suggest onions were used as far back as 5000 BC, not only for their flavour, but the bulb’s durability in storage and transport. Ancient Egyptians revered the onion bulb, viewing its spherical shape and concentric rings as symbols of eternal life. Onions were used in Egyptian burials, as evidenced by onion traces found in the eye sockets of Ramessess IV. The fourth book of the Hebrew Bible composed around the 5th century BC mentions onions when recounting scarce foodstuffs available: 11:5 — We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. In the 6th century BCE, the Charake Samhita, one of the primary works in the Ayurvedic tradition, documents the onion’s use as a medicinal plant, a ‘diuretic, good for digestion, the heart, the eyes, and the joints’. Pliny the Elder wrote about the use of onions and cabbage in Pompeii. He documented Roman beliefs about the onion’s ability to improve ocular ailments, aid in sleep, and heal everything from oral sores and toothaches to dog bites, lumbago and dysentery. Archaeologists unearthing Pompeii long after its 79 CE volcanic burial have found gardens resembling those in Pliny’s detailed narratives where the onions would have been grown. Onions were taken to North America by the first European settlers only to discover the plant readily available, and in wide use in Native American cooking. According to diaries kept by certain of the first English colonists, the bulb onion was one of the first crops planted by the Pilgrims.

Shallots are a type of onion, but  was formerly classified as a separate species, A. ascalonicum. Like garlic, shallots are formed in clusters of offsets with a head composed of multiple cloves. The skin colour of shallots can vary from golden brown to gray to rose red, and their off-white flesh is usually tinged with green or magenta. You can use shallots in the place of onions when cooking, but they do make smaller harvests.

In the gardening world, we are used to three different colours of onions. We grow the brown/yellow/golden, the red/purple and then the white, which I must admit, I have never tried. Across the world the brown is often used in everyday cooking, the red is often served raw as it is sweeter, and the white are often used in Mexican styled cuisine as they are very sweet once sautéed.

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Here are some varieties to try:

Brown: Radar (one of my favourites), Alisa Craig, Stuttgarter, Centurion, Hercules, Sturon, Hytech

Red: Red Baron, Electric (another favourite)

White: Snowball

Shallot: Griselle (good), Jermor, Bistro, Golden Gourmet, Picasso, Mikor, Yellow Moon, Vigarmor

Onions are best cultivated in fertile soils that are well-drained. Sandy loams are good as they are low in sulphur, while clayey soils usually have a high sulphur content and produce pungent bulbs. Onions require a high level of nutrients in the soil. Phosphorous is often present in sufficient quantities, but may be applied before planting because of its low level of availability in cold soils. Nitrogen and potash can be applied at regular intervals during the growing season, the last application of nitrogen being at least four weeks before harvesting. Or try planting them in your crop rotation after the runner beans. Bulbing onions are day-length sensitive; their bulbs begin growing only after the number of daylight hours has surpassed some minimal quantity. Most traditional European onions produce bulbs only after 14 hours or more of daylight. Southern European and North African varieties are often known as “intermediate-day” types, requiring only 12–13 hours of daylight to stimulate bulb formation. “Short-day” onions, which have been developed in more recent times, are planted in mild-winter areas in the autumn and form bulbs in the early spring, and require only 11–12 hours of daylight to stimulate bulb formation. Onions are a cool-weather crop. Hot temperatures or other stressful conditions cause them to bolt, meaning that a flower stem begins to grow.

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Onions may be grown from seeds or from sets. We often use sets (I’ve tried shallot seeds and grown a total of two miniature shallots that were the size of my pinkie’s fingernail…) Onion seeds are short-lived and fresh seeds germinate better. The seeds are sown thinly in shallow drills, thinning the plants in stages. In suitable climates, certain cultivars can be sown in late summer and autumn to overwinter in the ground and produce early crops the following year. Onion sets are produced by sowing seed thickly in early summer in poor soil and the small bulbs produced are harvested in the autumn. These bulbs are planted the following spring and grow into mature bulbs later in the year. Certain cultivars are used for this purpose and these may not have such good storage characteristics as those grown directly from seed.

If growing from seed, sow 1cm (½in) deep in rows 20cm (8in) apart from late February through to early April. Thin by removing weaker seedlings, first to 5cm (2in) apart and then later to 10cm (4in) apart. Plant spring sets March – April and harvest August – September. Plant winter sets in September and harvest May – June. Plant onion sets 10cm (4in) apart in rows 30cm (12in) apart. Gently push the sets into soft, well-worked soil so that the tip is just showing, and firm the soil around them.

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Routine care during the growing season involves keeping the rows free of competing weeds, especially when the plants are young. The plants are shallow-rooted and do not need a great deal of water when established. Bulbing usually takes place after 12 to 18 weeks. The bulbs can be gathered when needed to eat fresh, but if they will be kept in storage, they should be harvested after the leaves have died back naturally. In dry weather, they can be left on the surface of the soil for a few days to dry out properly, then they can be placed in nets, roped into strings, or laid in layers in shallow boxes. They should be stored in a well-ventilated, cool place such as a shed.

Freshly cut onions often cause a stinging sensation in the eyes of people nearby, and often uncontrollable tears. This is caused by the release of a volatile gas, syn-propanethial-S-oxide, which stimulates nerves in the eye creating a stinging sensation. This gas is produced by a chain of reactions which serve as a defence mechanism. Chopping an onion causes damage to cells which releases enzymes called alliinases, generating sulfenic acids. Lacrimal glands produce tears to dilute and flush out the irritant.

Onions are rich in carbohydrates, sugar, soluble and insoluble fiber, sodium. They are a very good source of vitamin C and so good for building your immunity. They are also a good source of enzyme-activating manganese and molybdenum as well as heart-healthy vitamin B6, fiber, folate, and potassium. Onions are surprisingly high in flavenoids, one of the top ten vegetables with Quercetin content. If you want to retain the flavonoid, peel off only the outer dry skin as the outer layers are more concentrated with flavenoids. Onions have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties and help in problems like rheumatoid arthritis or allergic airway inflammation. Studies show that onions help balance blood sugar levels. Onions also have anti bacterial properties. There are many stories and folklore. It is supposed to have saved families from plague and other infections. The anti bacterial effects of the onions act against the streptococcus mutants that cause various dental cavities and gum diseases. Studies suggest that the consumption of onions enhances the anti clotting capacity of blood. Onions have been known to increase bone density, reducing the risk of fractures. The sulphur content in onions is excellent for the connective tissues as well.

Natural treatments that use onion:

-Onions are also used in the treatment of piles or haemorrhoids. The juice of 30g of onion mixed with water and sugar is administered to the patient twice a day.

-In alopecia (hair loss), a topical application of onion juice has been said to initiate the re-growth of hair.

Cough, cold and asthma is often treated with a serving of onions, as it is known to decrease bronchial spasms. Onion juice mixed with honey helps cure bronchitis and influenza.

-Onions are also known to stimulate the growth of good bacteria while suppressing the growth of harmful bacteria in the colon, reducing the risk of colon cancer.

-The juice of Tulsi leaves (holy basil) with equal quantities of lemon juice and onion extract applied on the skin takes care of many skin diseases.

-A slice of cut onion rubbed over acne is supposed to clear up the skin quickly by taking off the bacterial infections.

-Naturopaths recommend eating onion and jaggery to increase body weight.

-Eating one raw onion a day reduces cholesterol in the blood.

-A remedy for warts is the application of the juice of one finely chopped onion sprinkled with salt and left for a few hours. This needs to be repeated 3 to 4 times a day until the wart dries up.

-The cure for cholera in Indian households is one onion pounded with 7 black peppers. It lessens vomiting and diarrhoea immediately. A little sugar could be added to the mixture to increase its effectiveness.

-A tea made of onions boiled in water, cooled, strained, and given to patients suffering from urinary infections gives immediate relief.

-Slice an onion and rub it over the sting of a bee, wasp or a mosquito to ease the discomfort.

-In the treatment for chicken pox, Indian women would serve the afflicted person a bowl of curd rice with chopped onions.

 

Onions can be added to anything. They are the base of all sauces, add flavour to a salad when served raw, and are just fundamental in the kitchen for pizza toppings, curries, stir fries, pies…

Here are some wonderful recipes using onions:

Pasta salad with fried onions and tomatoes : Autumn planting … and a recipe!

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Recipe: Baked Potatoes and Kidney Beans

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Aubergine (Eggplant) Curry

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And lots more – just type onion into the search bar on the home page. 

 

Bananas

Now, I don’t grow bananas. England isn’t that kind, even in the south. But I do love bananas. I do eat bananas, a lot. And I would love to grow bananas. But because I can hardly keep citrus trees alive and I’ve already half killed to plums and a pear in my short gardening life-time, best not to go there…

But I’ve done my research and I present to whoever can grow bananas an ‘all you need to know page’, I hope!

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From internet – bananas 

Banana, an edible fruit, botanically a berry, produced by several kinds of herbaceous plants in the genus Musa. In some countries, bananas used for cooking may be called plantains. The fruit is variable in size and colour and firmness, but usually elongated-ly curved with soft, rich flesh in starch covered in the middle by a rind that can be green, yellow (yay), red, purple or brown. The fruit grows from the top of the plant, hanging in clusters. Almost all bananas come from the wild species Musa acuminate and Musa balbisiana. 

Worldwide, there is no sharp distinction between “bananas” and “plantains”. Especially in the Americas and Europe, “banana” usually refers to soft, sweet, dessert bananas, particularly those of the Cavendish group which are the main exports from banana-growing countries. By contrast, cultivators with firmer, starchier fruit are called “plantains”. In other regions, such as South East Asia, many more kinds of banana are grown and eaten, so the binary distinction is not useful and is not made in local languages.

The word banana is thought to be of West African origin, possibly from the Wolof word banaana, and passed into English via Spanish or Portuguese

All the above-ground parts of a banana plant grow from a structure usually called a corm. Plants are normally tall and fairly sturdy, and are often mistaken for trees but what appears to be a trunk is actually a “false stem” or pseudostem. Bananas grow in a wide variety of soils, as long as the soil is at least 60 cm deep, has good drainage and is not compacted. The leaves of banana plants are composed of a “stalk”, petiole, and a blade, lamina. The base of the petiole widens to form a sheath – the tightly packed sheaths make up the pseudostem, which is all that supports the plant. The edges of the sheath meet when it is first produced, making it tubular. As new growth occurs in the centre of the pseudostem the edges are forced apart. Cultivated banana plants vary in height, depending on the variety and growing conditions. Most are around 5 m (16 ft) tall, with a range from ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ plants at around 3 m (10 ft) to ‘Gros Michel’ at 7 m (23 ft) or more. Leaves are spirally arranged and may grow 2.7 metres (8.9 ft) long and 60 cm (2.0 ft) wide. They are easily torn by the wind, resulting in the familiar frond look. When a banana plant is mature, the corm stops producing new leaves and begins to form a flower spike or an inflorescence. A stem develops which grows up inside the pseudostem, carrying the immature inflorescence until eventually it emerges at the top. Each pseudostem normally produces a single inflorescence, also known as the “banana heart”. After fruiting, the pseudostem dies, but offshoots will normally have developed from the base, so that the plant as a whole is perennial. In the plantation system of cultivation, only one of the offshoots will be allowed to develop in order to maintain spacing. The inflorescence contains many bracts between rows of flowers. The female flowers, which can develop into fruit, appear in rows further up the stem, closer to the leaves, from the rows of male flowers. The banana fruits develop from the banana heart, in a large hanging cluster, made up of tiers (called “hands”), with up to 20 fruit to a tier. The hanging cluster is known as a bunch, comprising 3–20 tiers or commercially as a “banana stem”, and can weigh 30–50 kilograms (66–110 lb). Individual banana fruits (commonly known as a banana or “finger”) average 125 grams (0.276 lb), of which approximately 75% is water and 25% dry matter (nutrient table, lower right). The fruit has been described as a “leathery berry”. There is a protective outer layer (a peel or skin) with numerous long, thin strings (the phloem bundles), which run lengthwise between the skin and the edible inside. In cultivated varieties, the seeds are diminished nearly to non-existence; their remnants are tiny black specks in the interior of the fruit.

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From internet – banana tree

Farmers in SE Asia and Papua New Guinea first domesticated bananas. Recent archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence at Kuk Swamp in the Western Highland Province of Papua New Guinea suggests that banana cultivation there goes back to at least 5000BC and possibly to 8000 BC. It is likely that other species were later and independently domesticated elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is the region of primary diversity of the banana. Areas of secondary diversity are found in Africa, indicating a long history of banana cultivation in the region. There are numerous references to the banana in Islamic texts beginning in the 9th century. By the 10th century the banana appears in texts from Palestine and Egypt. From there it diffused into North Africa and Muslim Iberia. During the medieval ages, bananas from Granada were considered among the best in the Arab world. Bananas were certainly grown in the Cyprus by the late medieval period. Writing in 1458, an Italian traveller and writer wrote favourably of the extensive farm produce of the estates at Episkopi, near modern-day Limassol, including the region’s banana plantations. Bananas were introduced to the Americas by Portuguese sailors who brought the fruits from West Africa in the 16th century. Portuguese colonists started banana plantations in the Atlantic Islands, Brazil, and western Africa. North Americans began consuming bananas on a small scale at very high prices shortly after the Civil War, though it was only in the 1880s that the food became more widespread. As late as the Victorian era, bananas were not widely known in Europe, although they were available. Verne introduces bananas to his readers with detailed descriptions in Around the World in Eighty Days in 1872. The earliest modern banana plantations originated in the Western Caribbean zone, involving the combination of modern transportation networks of steamships and railroads with the development of refrigeration that allowed more time between harvesting and ripening. Their political manoeuvres gave rise to the term Banana Republic for states like Honduras and Guatemala. The vast majority of the world’s bananas today are cultivated for family consumption or for sale on local markets. India is the world leader in this sort of production, but many other Asian and African countries where climate and soil conditions allow cultivation also host large populations of banana growers who sell at least some of their crop.

While in no danger of outright extinction, the most common edible banana cultivar Cavendish (extremely popular in Europe and the Americas) could become unviable for large-scale cultivation in the next 10–20 years. Its predecessor, Gros Michel discovered in the 1820s, suffered this fate. Like almost all bananas, Cavendish lacks genetic diversity, which makes it vulnerable to diseases, threatening both commercial cultivation and small-scale subsistence farming.

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From internet – banana tree

Bananas are a great dietary source of potassium. One medium-sized banana (118 grams) contains 9% of the RDI. Potassium is good for protecting your heart from disease, by lowering your blood pressure. Eating a good amount of potassium can decrease your chance of heart disease by 27%. Also, potassium is good for you hair and nail growth, keeping them strong and un-brittle. Dietary fiber has been linked to many health benefits, including improved digestion. A medium-sized banana contains about 3 grams of fibre. Bananas contain mainly two types of fiber:

  • Pectin: Decreases as the banana ripens.
  • Resistant starch: Found in unripe bananas.

Resistant starch escapes digestion and ends up in our large intestine, where it becomes food for the beneficial gut bacteria. Additionally, some cell studies propose that pectin may help protect against colon cancer. Bananas are often referred to as the perfect food for athletes, largely due to their mineral content and easily digested carbs. Eating bananas may help reduce exercise-related muscle cramps and soreness. The reason for the cramps is unknown, but a popular theory blames a mixture of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.

So what do you do when you (are lucky) and grow a large number of bananas or have a large bunch sitting in your kitchen, quickly turning brown?

Well, here are some ideas to incorporate bananas into your daily diet:

  • Sliced up on cereal or porridge with milk for breakfast is great.
  • Mashed with strawberries makes a good light pudding or snack.
  • Sliced with greek yoghurt is delicious.
  • Banana and peanut butter/Nutella on toast anyone…?
  • Sliced or mashed banana with milk and a dash of sugar.
  • Banana smoothie/ milkshake

But the best recipe for browning/very brown that they are past edible, is banana cake.

My favourite is Chocolate Banana Loaf (what a surprise), but to begin with, I offer you this plain version. Never toss your brown bananas away, just shove them in this delicious cake, or if you have too many, bananas freeze very well. To defrost, put them in the microwave and mix them into another cake batter later on.

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Banana Cake

Serves 10, 1.5kg loaf tin

-300g self-raising flour -150g salted butter -150g granulated sugar -3 eggs -4 large bananas -75ml full-fat milk

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Line the loaf tin with baking parchment.
  2. Mix the flour and butter together until they resemble a bread crumb consistency. Mix in the sugar.
  3. Add the eggs and combine. Peel the bananas from their skins and mix in thoroughly. Add the milk, to loosen the mixture. Mix well.
  4. Scrape the smooth cake batter into the lined loaf tin and bake in the oven for approximately 45 minutes. When a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean, the cake is done.
  5. Leave the cake in the tin to cool before transferring to a wire rack. Serve in square slices. Keep in an airtight container and consume within three days.

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