A Brief Dissertation Upon Shallots and Onions Which Prefer To Multiply
I once wrote a “real” dissertation, a ponderous 200+ page long tome on the novels of Henry James, for which I was rewarded a Ph. D. in English, despite the fact that my native language is Southern (that degree, along with two bucks, will get you a styrofoam container of hot java at Starbucks). My status as a bilingual speaker and writer of both American English and Southern Gibberish puts me in a category that is sometimes referred to as “bi-ignorant.”
Be that as it may, this more practical dissertation concerns the distinction among shallots, multiplying, and potato onions. Here the gardener and common name using lay person is far ahead of the scientific community, who lump all of the above into the single species variety Allium cepa var. aggregatum, which designates these onions as simply perennial multiplying (aggregating) versions of the common bulb (think supermarket) onion. While this may seem a clear enough subject, the definition of these terms has lead to international disputes, embargoes, boycotts, and lawsuits (google “shallot wars” for the scoop on just one of these).
The first thing to remember is the fact that all cultivated Shallots, Onions, and Leeks are hybrids–some natural, some not, but all of obscure parentage. There is no wild native shallot/multiplying onion that can be shot with a tranquilizer dart and brought back to the lab for observation and study. The wild relatives/ancestors of the common onion are fairly well known, however, and we are in fact in the process of introducing a few of these into cultivation. But that is another topic.
The easiest thing to define in this genetic allium fog is what is NOT a traditional shallot, which includes the vast majority of onions sold as shallots in supermarkets in the US–and this includes quality markets such as Whole Foods. According to the French, and they should know about shallots, any seed grown onion, such as the omnipresent “Dutch Yellow Shallots,” whether it multiplies or not, is not a true shallot. To be considered an “echalote traditionelle” a shallot must be vegetatively propagated and manually harvested. Therefore, cogito ergo sum, a traditional shallot cannot be seed grown, but a multiplying onion can. Following the lead of another Southerner, Mr. Jefferson of Virginia, I defer to the French on most matters culinary and oniony.
The question remains as to what differentiates a shallot from its close cousin multiplying/potato onion. For the sake of argument, multiplying and potato onions will be assumed to be more or less the same except for the size of the bulb (this is often given as the difference between multipliers and shallots as well, which I will dispute presently). After growing both for several years, I have had the experience of most growers, in that one year a potato onion will make multiplier sized onions, and then in the next make potato onion sized onions, or more commonly a mixture of both in the same year. Some varieties always make small onions, but rarely if ever does one variety always make large onions–at least I have never seen one. The distinction between these two (multipliers and potato) is mostly about size, rather than biology.
Then what is the final difference between a shallot and a multiplier, if size is not the primary issue? Back to France for a couple of answers. Shallots rarely if ever flower, whereas multiplier onions, and in particular the white ones, flower either annually or at irregular intervals. This would help to explain the vegetative propagation necessary for the production of traditional shallots.
The second difference may or may not be the most important, especially as a morphological difference between the two. Shallots tend to have two eyes per every asymmetrical bulb, while multiplying onions tend to have only one eye per more symmetrical bulbs. Even small multipliers like the I’itoi onion from the US Southwestern Tohono O’odham Native Americans, usually have only one eye per bulb. Whether this is the difference that makes one onion bloom and another not, I will leave up to the people who have a Ph. D. in plant genetics.
In brief, then, the differences between a shallot and a multiplying onion are A) Shallots flower only on the rare occasion, and B) Shallots on the average have two eyes per asymmetrical bulb while multiplying or potato onions, regardless of their size, usually have only one. There probably are some varieties that are intermediate between the two, as all Allium cepa are believed to be hybrids of various wild allium species (see above). The untangling of that vast genetic web is far beyond the scope of this benighted farm boy.
Finally, a bone for all the botanist types out there, and a heads up to plant breeders. The grey or griselle shallot, which is very popular among cooks worldwide, is not an Allium cepa at all, but is now classified as the separate species Allium oschaninii. Score one for the botanists. And a score for every onion lover is the honking giant yellow potato onion named the “Green Mountain Multiplier Onion,” bred by Mr. Kelly Winterton of Utah, which is occasionally available via the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook. After years of taking a beat down at the hands of corporate agriculture, the multipliers appear to be ready to prosper, and multiply.