Did you know that we have six native species of flowering members of the onion family here in British Columbia, four of which you might encounter when out on the trails of Mayne Island? The most common is nodding onion (Allium cernuum), and the ones seen less often are Hooker’s onion (Allium acuminatum), slim-leaved onion (Allium amplectens) which you might see at Cotton Park, and Geyer’s onion (Allium geyeri) which is uncommon on Mayne.
These perennial plants grow from small scaly bulbs, and nodding onions have long stems measuring 10 to 40 cm in height with a flower cluster at the top. Before blooming, buds appear surrounded by papery bracts containing 5 to 30 small flowers. As suggested by its name, the bloom of the nodding onion hangs downwards and is made up of a cluster of rose pink to white bell-shaped individual florets.
The Hooker’s onion flower head is upright rather than hanging, and the flowers are a rich shade of purple-pink. The individual flowers form a cluster approximately 7 cm wide, and the delicate stalks radiating from the centre are known as pedicels. Both species have grey-green, narrow, flat leaves which grow from the base of the plant and are shorter than the flowering stem. The slim-leaved onion is a species at risk of extinction, but there are at least two places where it grows on Mayne. This species has a white upright flower with several to many florets. Habitat loss is the main reason it is endangered.
These native onions are found on rocky bluffs, grassy slopes, in Garry oak woodlands, and along coastal headlands around the island. The plants show first signs of life in late winter and the leaves appear in April. In May through to early August the flowers open, and after blooming the capsules split to release black seeds. Native onions can reproduce by seed or bulb division, and provide valuable food for pollinators in mid to late summer.
If you rub one of the little flowers between your fingers, you will notice a strong garlicky-onion smell. Indigenous peoples have used these native onions in their cooking for generations, eating the bulbs raw or steaming them in pit ovens. The nodding onion in particular has an excellent flavour and can be grown in the garden for culinary purposes.
The nodding onion is available from the Conservancy’s native plant nursery, and we currently have 15 available for sale, with more coming next spring. To find out more or to purchase a plant, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our upcoming plant sale on Saturday, October 1st.
- The Illustrated Flora of British Columbia
- Royal British Columbia Museum, Dr Richard Hebda
- Indigenous Education Department, School District 61, Plant Gardens