As we approach Thanksgiving, let us be grateful for the humble onion.
The planting of onions is closely linked with the Christian calendar. In Shropshire, Ash Wednesday was the proper day for sowing. Some said St. Gregory’s Day (March 12) was best.
Still others believed they should be planted on the shortest day, St. Thomas’s, and harvested on the longest. On Halloween, St. Thomas can be invoked by placing the onion named after him under your pillow.
In France, onions (Allium cepa) and leeks (Allium porrum) are sown on Palm Sunday. In Maryland, the signs of the zodiac were preferred. The ram, bull and lion gave strength to the bulbs.
Onions can be used to predict the severity of the coming winter:
“Onion skin very thin
Mild winter’s coming in;
Onion skin thick and tough
Coming winter wild and rough.”
On the home front, however:
“To dream of eating an onion means
Much strife in thy domestic scenes,
Secrets found out or else betrayed,
And many falsehoods made and said.”
Strong-smelling onions were used as witch deterrents over house and stable doors. They had to be cut and peeled to have full effect. They also absorbed infection when pinned to the wall of a fever patient’s room.
During a smallpox outbreak in Stockton Heath, Cheshire, England, a peeled onion hung over the door of the post office. No one in the house contracted the disease, and when the onion was taken down, it was black, “for the smallpox had flowed straight to it.”
Likewise, the occupants of a Cheshire farm claimed to have saved their stock from the ravages of foot and mouth disease in 1968 by placing onions along the windowsills and doorways of the cowsheds.
An onion stuck with new pins and roasted would “prick the heart” of a straying lover and bring him back to the fold. When selecting an onion for such a purpose, one had to enter the green grocer’s through one door and leave through another.
Naughty schoolboys who were caned on the palms used an onion to deaden the sting.
Numerous folk cures used onions. A paste made of onion and honey was used to treat baldness. A roasted onion held against the ear relieved earache, and a tea of onions and wild lobelia was used in the Ozarks for pneumonia. It could also relieve the sting of a bee or wasp.
There’s nothing quite like the smell of roasting onions. What would Thanksgiving be without sage and onion dressing?
– A reference librarian, Lisa Karen Miller has been gardening and researching plant lore for many years. Have plant lore to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.