"Natural Healing with Herbs for a Healthier You"

The onion or allium family is a large and diverse one containing over 500 species.  It has not one but four possible wild plants it could have evolved from all of which grow in the central Asian region.  Because onions are small and their tissues leave little or no trace, there is no conclusive evidence about the exact location and time of their origin.  Many archaeologists, botanists and food historians believe onion originated in central Asia.

It is presumed that our predecessors discovered and started eating wild onions very early, long before farming or even writing was invented.  Very likely, this humble vegetable was a staple in prehistoric diet.

Most researchers agree that the onion has been cultivated for 5000 years or more and that they were first grown in Iran and West Pakistan.  However, the archaeological and literary evidence suggests cultivation probably took place around two thousand years later in ancient Egypt.  Since onions grew wild in various regions, they were probably consumed for thousands of years and domesticated simultaneously all over the world.  This happened alongside the cultivation of leeks and garlic and it is thought that the “…slaves who built the pyramids were fed radishes and onions”. 1

For over 4000 years, onions have been used for medicinal purposes.  Egyptians numbered over 8000 onion alleviated ailments.  There is documentation from very early times, which describe the onions importance as a food and its use in art, medicine and mummification. 

Egyptians buried onions along with their Pharaohs.  The Egyptians saw eternal life in the anatomy of the onion because of its circle-within-a-circle structure.  In mummies, onions have frequently been found in the "…pelvic regions of the body, in the thorax, flattened against the  ears and in front of the collapsed eyes.  Flowering onions have been found in the chest, and onions have been found attached to the soles of the feet and along the legs".  King Ramses IV, who died in 1160 B.C., was "…entombed with onions in his eye sockets". 2 

Some Egyptologists theorize that onions may have been used because it was believed that their strong scent and/or magical powers would prompt the dead to breathe again.  Other Egyptologists believe it was because onions were known for their strong antiseptic qualities, which were construed as magical, and could be useful in the afterlife.2

The onion is mentioned as a funeral offering and onions are depicted on the banquet tables of the great feasts and they were shown upon the altars of the gods.  Paintings of onions appear on the inner walls of the pyramids and in the "…tombs of both the Old Kingdom and the New Kingdom".  Frequently, a priest is pictured holding onions in his hand or covering an altar with a bundle of their leaves or roots.2

Onions grew in Chinese gardens as early as 5000 years ago and they are referenced in some of the oldest Vedic writings from India.  There is evidence that the Sumerians were growing onions as early as 2500 B.C.  One Sumerian text dated to about 2500 B.C. tells of "…someone plowing over the city governor's onion patch". 2

Onions may be one of the earliest cultivated crops because they were less perishable than other foods of the time.  They were transportable, easy to grow and could be grown in a variety of soils and climates.  In addition, the onion was useful for sustaining human life.  Onions prevented thirst and could be dried and preserved for later consumption when food might be scarce.

Onions are mentioned to have been eaten by the Israelites in the Bible.  In Numbers 11:5 the children of Israel lament the meager desert diet enforced by the Exodus: "We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic". 3

In India as early as the sixth century B.C., the famous medical treatise Charaka - Sanhita celebrates the onion as medicine “…a diuretic, good for digestion, the heart, the eyes and the joints". 2

It was the Romans who introduced the onion family to Europe.  The Romans ate onions regularly and carried them on journeys to their provinces in England and Germany.  Pliny the Elder, Roman's observer, wrote of Pompeii's onions and cabbages.  Before he was overcome and killed by the volcano's heat and fumes, he catalogued the roman beliefs about the efficacy of the onion to cure vision, induce sleep, heal mouth sores, dog bites, toothaches, dysentery and lumbago.  Excavators of the doomed city would later find gardens where, just as Pliny had said, onions had grown.  The bulbs had left behind telltale cavities in the ground.2

The Roman gourmet Apicius, credited with writing one of the first cookbooks (which dates to the eighth and ninth centuries A.D.), included many references to onions.2

The origins of its name are also Roman or at least Latin.  The Late Latin name unio was used to describe a species of onion resembling a single white pearl.  This was later formed into the basis for the French, “oignon” and then later the English, “Onion”. 1

By the Middle Ages, the three main vegetables of European cooking were beans, cabbage and onions.  In addition to serving as a "…food for both the poor and the wealthy…” onions  were prescribed to alleviate headaches, snakebites and hair loss.  They were also used as rent
payments and wedding gifts.2

The Greek physician Hippocrates prescribed onions as a diuretic, wound healer and pneumonia fighter.  Likewise, Dioscorides, a Greek physician noted several medicinal uses of onions.  The Greeks used onions to fortify athletes for the Olympic Games.  Before competition, athletes would consume pounds of onions, drink onion juice and rub onions on their bodies.1

The first Pilgrims brought onions with them on the Mayflower.  However, they found that strains of wild onions already grew throughout North America.  Native American Indians used wild onions in a variety of ways, eating them raw or cooked, as a seasoning or as a vegetable.  Such onions were also used in syrups, as poultices, as an ingredient in dyes and even as toys.  According to diaries of colonists, bulb onions were planted as soon as the Pilgrim farmers could clear the land in 1648.2

During World War II the Russian soldiers were so taken with onions ability to prevent infection, that they applied onions to battle wounds as an antiseptic. 

And through the ages, there have been countless folk remedies that have ascribed their curative powers to onions, such as putting a sliced onion under your pillow to fight off insomnia.1

Yet today, onions are still considered a modern day preventative and healer.  These days herbalists use the plant for treating such ailments as earaches, hemorrhoids and high blood pressure.  While garlic, another allium, has been highly touted as a cancer preventative, most
people consume far greater quantities of onions. 

As Americans search for low-fat, low-salt, and tasty meals, they’re eating more Onions …“almost 18 pounds per person per year, which is 50% more than a decade ago”. 1 There is great confidence that the onion will be a key in producing long-term health benefits.
by Eva Wilson
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