Facts and figures on Onions and Shallots

Onions from Mr Fothergill'sOnion red baronShallot sets

Onions and shallots are both botanically Allium cepa, with onions, which produce a single bulb, belonging to the Cepa Group and shallots, with their clusters of bulbs, part of the Aggregatum Group. Egyptian and tree onions belong to a third Proliferum Group.

No one is certain where onions originated, but central Asia, Persia (Iran) and Pakistan have all been suggested. Nor are we certain for how long onions have been cultivated, but we believe it to be around 5,000 years. Thanks to their concentric layers of flesh or circles within circles, they represented eternity to the Ancient Egyptians and were even buried with the Pharaohs. Traces of onions have been found in some Bronze Age settlements.

Athletes in Ancient Greece ate plenty of onions in the belief they would ‘lighten the balance’ of their blood. Roman gladiators rubbed themselves down with onions to firm up their muscles. Alexander the Great fed his army onions because he thought that strong food produced strong men. Another famous general, Ulysses S Grant, sent a telegram to the War Department in an onion shortage during the American Civil War saying “I will not move my army without onions”. He soon received his bulbs.

The Greek physician Hippocrates prescribed onions both as a diuretic and wound-healer. During the Middle Ages onions were used to treat snakebites, headaches and hair loss. At this period the onion was a staple of the European diet. Christopher Columbus took it with him to America, but wild onions were already growing there and being eaten by the native North American Indians. When the Pilgrim Fathers arrived more than a century later, onions were one of the first crops they grew on the land they cleared.

Nowadays around 9,000,000 acres of onions are grown worldwide annually. China and India are the two main producers, with the USA a long way back in third place. In the UK just 370 acres are devoted to the commercial production of shallots, with most of these in the eastern counties of Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Bedfordshire. While shallots are easier to grow, quicker to mature and store better than onions, they are nevertheless only a minor crop in comparison.

The Ancient Greeks gave shallots their name, when their traders discovered them in the Palestinian port of Ashkalon and named them after the city. Shallots found their way to Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries when crusaders brought them back from the Middle East.

Shallots are an integral part of many classic French dishes, including Boeuf Bourguignon. The French grey shallot or griselle is considered by some to be the ‘true’ shallot, and is famed for it5s intense, unique flavour.

Still widely grown by gardeners today, Bedfordshire Champion was introduced in 1885 and Ailsa Craig in 1899. Onions and shallots do best in an open, sunny position and in fairly rich, well drained soils. Acid soils should be limed before onions are grown in them. The application of well-rotted manure or compost to the soil in autumn is ideal for spring-sown or planted onions; onion seed should not be sown on freshly manured soil.


To browse all the onions, shallots and garlic we have on offer at Mr Fothergill’s just follow this link to the onion section of our website

Royal Horticultural Society


This article was first published on the RHS website January 2016. 

Read more on the RHS website about growing onions and shallots successfully.

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