Despite the modest mien of Allium cernuum, this flavourful pollinator gave Chicago its name
Tips for better gardening, native flora in profile and advice for birdwatchers.
37 Field Guide 38 Your Garden 40 Birding
The nodding onion is an appealing plant. It bears small pink, lavender or white flowers atop a long stalk that bends somewhat so that the cluster of blossoms hangs down and gently nods. Soft grass-like leaves form at the base. Clusters of attenuated bulbs form the root system. Found in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C., it
blooms for three or four weeks in July and August. It has a mild aroma of onion.
It has the taste of onion as well. The leaves in spring and fall are edible, as are bulbs that are two years and older and, most deliciously, the tender midsummer bulb-lets. An online search yields many serving tips and recipes. Northwest Coast First Nations would steam them in pits lined with cedar boughs.
This member of the lily family appeals to hummingbirds, butterflies and bees — bees in particular, as the downturned umbels of flowers discourage other insects, which are reluctant to hang upside-down while gathering nectar or pollen. The bees are drawn to the flowers’ untouched supply, protected as well from the rain by the flowers’ downcast position. After pollination, the flowers face upwards and morph into paper-like pods, eventually releasing shiny black seeds. The city of Chicago gets its name from the Algonquin name for this modest plant, which flourished in a meadow near where French explorer René-robert Cavalier de La Salle encamped in 1687. According to one of his companion’s diaries, “We arrived at a place which is named Checagou,” he wrote, approximating the local Algonquin dialect, “which … has taken its name from the quantity of garlic which grows in this district, in the woods … like the little onions of France.”