Walking around historical sites like Yorktown is a welcome calm in many people’s very busy lifestyles. The kind people and colonial sites capture our attention, and as you stroll from Water Street to Church Street you experience a taste of life from where our country began to take shape.
However, in late spring if you look just a little beyond the museums, beaches and shops, you will see something incredible. As the world around us has turned colorful again, you can spot these amazing purple flowers that seem to have popped up in the middle of everything and be everywhere! These large, round and bulbous flowers have a beautiful and rich history in Yorktown, Virginia. These gorgeous purple flowers are called the Yorktown Onion, or Allium ampeloprasum.
No one is completely certain about how the Yorktown Onion made it to the area. There are several ideas but the pervading thought is that the plant, like many others, made it to the Yorktown area by accident. Legend has it that it made it to the New World sometime during the Revolutionary War when it became mixed with imported crop seeds and became firmly established as a wild plant as it generously populated York County, Virginia.
As part of the allium genus, the Yorktown Onion is a wild plant commonly known as wild leek or broadleaf wild leak. It is native to southern Europe through Western Asia and has been cultivated in many other areas of the world. Over the centuries the Allium ampeloprasum has been cultivated into three vegetables, namely the leek, elephant garlic and kurrat.
The beautiful plant is protected by York County ordinance. According to the Code of the County of York, Virginia, gathering or collecting Yorktown Onions is prohibited. Although the bulbs can be purchased locally, they have traditionally been given to friends and family through local gardeners that are allowed to dig up the bulbs that originate on their own property, but only in order to propagate the flower.
If you are lucky enough to be given a bulb or two, patience is key. The bulbs are to be planted in either fall or spring, but it takes two years to see a bloom like the purple explosions of color that can been seen all over York County in the spring. Once they begin to bloom, the stalks can grow from around three feet with a stunning round top that reaches an average of three inches in diameter. The round ball is filled with hundreds of little purple flowers packed tightly together and is called the umbel. They are admired by everyone who sees them as they stroll down Riverwalk Landing or drive along portions of the Colonial Parkway.
Beyond their obvious beauty, the Yorktown Onion comes from a genus that has long been revered historically for its medicinal properties as well as its culinary delight. Ancient Babylonians used the allium plants for the health benefits and cultivated the plant to treat digestive and respiratory systems as well as benefits on the circulatory system. It was even found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun and consumed in large quantities by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The umbels were commonly used as dye in many applications.
Worldwide the variations of the Yorktown Onion adapt to climate and vary in size, color and flavor. The Yorktown Onion that has made itself at home in our neck of the woods was known to be similar to onion with a flavor that was admired as a mild blend of onion and garlic.
In this century, we mostly admire the Yorktown Onion for the beauty that it brings to our area. So the next time you are out driving or walking through the historical sites, take the time to admire this accidental treasure that has made itself at home with us.