On Thursday April 11, 1805 the Lewis and Clark Expedition camped near where the Little Missouri River flows into the Missouri River. Lewis noted in his journal that they collected and ate some wild onions. He wrote:
“found a great quantity of small onions in the plain where we encamped; had some of them collected and cooked, found them agreeable. The bulb grows single, is of an oval form, white, and about the size of a small bullet….”
There are two wild onions native to North Dakota, but there is little doubt that those onions were white wild onions, or Allium textile. White wild onions can be found on upland prairies over much of the state. In some situations they can actually be locally quite abundant, so perhaps they found a patch or two.
White wild onions grow to a height of about 4-6 inches. The dense cluster of small white flowers are produced from late April through June. Because there are few wild flowers blooming in April and into May, wild onions are often quiet noticeable to the casual observer. So the onions may have been blooming a bit early in 1805 or someone on the expedition knew their onions. Whatever the case, the bulb, about the size of a marble or a bit smaller, is located an inch or two below the soil surface.
Pink wild onion or Allium stellatum can also be found over much of the state north and east of the Missouri River. It is a taller plant, growing to between 6 inches and a foot, and is usually found on better soils. In Late July to late August the open inflorescence of small pink flowers is actually quite showy.
I have found their flavor of wild onions to be more garlicky than oniony. If you are ever tempted to sample some wild onions, please note that all wild onions will have a distinct smell of onion and garlic. Occasionally the novice will confuse camas, sometimes called death camas (Zigadenus spp.) with wild onions. As the name implies, that is not a plant you want to eat. However, the camas plant has a flower that is noticeably different than that of an onion, and the bulb does not smell of onion or garlic. So the moral of this story is don’t eat a wild onion that doesn’t scream the taste of garlic and onion.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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