The onion (Allium cepa L., from Latin cepa “onion”), also known as the bulb onion or common onion, is a vegetable and is the most widely cultivated species of the genus Allium.
This genus also contains several other species variously referred to as onions and cultivated for food, such as the Japanese bunching onion (Allium fistulosum), the tree onion (A. ×proliferum), and the Canada onion (Allium canadense). The name “wild onion” is applied to a number of Allium species, but A. cepa is exclusively known from cultivation. Its ancestral wild original form is not known, although escapes from cultivation have become established in some regions. The onion is most frequently a biennial or a perennial plant, but is usually treated as an annual and harvested in its first growing season.
The onion plant has a fan of hollow, bluish-green leaves and its bulb at the base of the plant begins to swell when a certain day-length is reached. The bulbs are composed of shortened, compressed, underground stems surrounded by fleshy modified scale (leaves) that envelop a central bud at the tip of the stem. In the autumn (or in spring, in the case of overwintering onions), the foliage dies down and the outer layers of the bulb become dry and brittle. The crop is harvested and dried and the onions are ready for use or storage. The crop is prone to attack by a number of pests and diseases, particularly the onion fly, the onion eelworm, and various fungi cause rotting. Some varieties of A. cepa, such as shallots and potato onions, produce multiple bulbs.
Onions are cultivated and used around the world. As a food item, they are usually served cooked, as a vegetable or part of a prepared savoury dish, but can also be eaten raw or used to make pickles or chutneys. They are pungent when chopped and contain certain chemical substances which irritate the eyes.
The onion plant (Allium cepa), also known as the bulb onion or common onion, is the most widely cultivated species of the genus Allium. It was first officially described by Carl Linnaeus in his 1753 work Species Plantarum. A number of synonyms have appeared in its taxonomic history:
- Allium cepaaggregatum – G. Don
- Allium cepabulbiferum – Regel
- Allium cepacepa – Linnaeus
- Allium cepamultiplicans – L.H. Bailey
- Allium cepaproliferum – (Moench) Regel
- Allium cepasolaninum – Alef
- Allium cepaviviparum – (Metz) Mansf.
- cepais known exclusively from cultivation, but related wild species occur in Central Asia. The most closely related species include A. vavilovii(Popov & Vved.) and A. asarense (R.M. Fritsch & Matin) from Iran. However, Zohary and Hopf state that “there are doubts whether the A. vavilovii collections tested represent genuine wild material or only feral derivatives of the crop.”
The vast majority of cultivars of A. cepa belong to the “common onion group” (A. cepa var. cepa) and are usually referred to simply as “onions”. The Aggregatum group of cultivars (A. cepa var. aggregatum) includes both shallots and potato onions.
The genus Allium also contains a number of other species variously referred to as onions and cultivated for food, such as the Japanese bunching onion (A. fistulosum), Egyptian onion (A. ×proliferum), and Canada onion (A. canadense).
Cepa is commonly accepted as Latin for “onion” and has an affinity with Ancient Greek: κάπια (kápia), Albanian: qepë, Aromanian: tseapã, Catalan: ceba, English: chive, Occitan: ceba, Old French: cive, and Romanian: ceapă.