The onion (Allium cepa L.) (Latin ‘cepa’ = onion), also known as the bulb onion or common onion, is a vegetable and is the most widely cultivated species of the genus Allium.
This genus also contains several other species variously referred to as onions and cultivated for food, such as the Japanese bunching onion (A. fistulosum), the Egyptian onion (A. ×proliferum), and the Canada onion (A. canadense). The name “wild onion” is applied to a number of Allium species but A. cepa is exclusively known from cultivation and its ancestral wild original form is not known, although escapes from cultivation have become established in some regions. 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.
The onion plant has a fan of hollow, bluish-green leaves and the bulb at the base of the plant begins to swell when a certain day-length is reached. In the autumn 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. The crop is prone to attack by a number of pests and diseases, particularly the onion fly, the onion eelworm and various fungi that cause rotting. Some varieties of A. cepa such as shallots and potato onions produce multiple bulbs.
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. They are pungent when chopped and contain certain chemical substances which irritate the eyes.
The onion plant (Allium cepa) is unknown in the wild but has been grown and selectively bred in cultivation for at least 7,000 years. It is a biennial plant but is usually grown as an annual. Modern varieties typically grow to a height of 15 to 45 cm (6 to 18 in). The leaves are yellowish-green and grow alternately in a flattened, fan-shaped swathe. They are fleshy, hollow and cylindrical, with one flattened side. They are at their broadest about a quarter of the way up beyond which they taper towards a blunt tip. The base of each leaf is a flattened, usually white sheath that grows out of a basal disc. From the underside of the disc, a bundle of fibrous roots extends for a short way into the soil. As the onion matures, food reserves begin to accumulate in the leaf bases and the bulb of the onion swells.
In the autumn the leaves die back and the outer scales of the bulb become dry and brittle, and this is the time at which the crop is normally harvested. If left in the soil over winter, the growing point in the middle of the bulb begins to develop in the spring. New leaves appear and a long, stout, hollow stem expands, topped by a bract protecting a developing inflorescence. The inflorescence takes the form of a globular umbel of white flowers with parts in sixes. The seeds are glossy black and triangular in cross section.