Ode to Onion Grass . . .
Tufts of a deeper green
Claim the slumbering brown
Where new grass has not yet grown.
Spreading, sporadic and nomadic,
Over several seasons;
Flowers not, yet blooming,
The body itself a blossom
Beside trees, before walls,
Despite groundskeepers’ calls to arms
Against this perennial opponent.
Traditionally, family lily:
Bulbs, pale and rooted;
Shoots, almost evergreen;
Sprout into sight at the start
Of Spring’s annual work of Art;
Create great pieces of turf,
As Albrecht Durer saw it;
Draw a still life upon every lawn.
Kneeling down, taste takes over.
Savor the favor of their flavor
In hand, in soup, in stew.
Grazing as children, we knew
Those tangy and spicy moments,
Sinuses filled, now with memory
Of wild garlic, of chives,
Of onion grass.
One of the first hints of spring’s return, onion grass is a perennial harbinger of the new growing season. The plant’s thin, fleshy, almost everygreen leaves punctuate lawns and rejuvenate waste places before grass and other garden greenery grows into full gear.
Onion grass is an immigrant from Europe; a member of the genus Allium, more commonly known as the onions. This group of root vegetables was first cultivated by the Bronze Age Egyptians and became a staple of the Greek and Roman diet, especially amongst the gladiators and other althletes of Antiquity. Later, the Roman became the Italian, but the onion remained on the regional menu. One Italian of note, Christopher Columbus, was the first to introduce the vegetable to North America. Other varieties followed. Some were cultivated, some were domesticated and went feral, a few simply invaded and somehow took root.
Onion grass is a general folk name, culled from the appearance and olfactory qualities, which has been applied like a quilt over a loose group of wild plants. There is an actual invasive species called onion grass (Romulea rosia), which is ironically the one member not found within the genus Allium. The others, such as chives (Allium schoenoprasum) and crow garlic (Allium vineale), are true onions; a mix of natives and immigrants. The connection linking all of these plants can be traced higher up the scientific classification ladder at the rung of Order, Asparagales.
The West Village, not known for its wide lawns and devoid of vacant green lots, still hosts a few scattered colonies of onion grass. Specimens have been spotted growing along the walls of Reggie Fitzgerald Triangle, the gardens of the Church of St. Luke in the Fields, and Hudson River Park. In each case the plants have blended into the landscape as well as any other ornamental.
All of the onion grass species appear similar at a casual glance — clumps of sturdy, dark green blades not unlike crab grass. The senses of touch and smell provide more nuance. The rubbery texture and pungent aroma is quickly perceived when such a plant is rubbed or picked. Differentiating the various members by sight alone early in the season takes time and practice. The easiest method is to wait until the plants flower. Unfortunately, most private and public park lawns are mowed far too often for this natural fruition to occur.
— rPs 04 09 2010