Herbal History Herbal History
Herbs for Beginners Cooking with Herbs

Garden Herbs

Garlic, Leek and Onion


Seeming at first sight out of place among the lilies of the field, yet Garlic, the Leek, and the Onion are true members of that noble order, and may be correctly classified together with the favored tribe, "Clothed more grandly than Solomon in all his glory." They possess alike the same properties and characteristics, though in varying degrees, and they severally belong to the genus Allium, each containing "allyl," which is a radical rich in sulphur.

The homely Onion may be taken first as the best illustration of the family. This is named technically Allium cepa, from cep, a head (of bunched florets which it bears). Lucilius called it Flebile coepe, because the pungency of its odor will provoke a flow of tears from the eyes. As Shakespeare says, in "Taming of the Shrew":

"Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon."

The Egyptians were devoted to Onions, which they ate more than two thousand years before the time of Christ. They were given to swear by the Onion and Garlic in their gardens. Herodotus tells us that during the building of the pyramids nine tons of gold were spent in buying onions for the workmen. But it is to be noted that in Egypt the Onion is sweet and soft; whereas, in other countries it grows hard, and nauseous, and strong.

By the Greeks this bulb was called Krommuon, "apo tau Meuein tas koras," because of shutting the eyes when eating it. In Latin its name unio, signified a single root without offsets.

Raw Onions contain an acrid volatile oil, sulphur, phosphorus, alkaline earthy salts, phosphoric and acetic acids, with phosphate and citrate of lime, starch, free uncrystallized sugar, and lignine. The fresh juice is colorless, but by exposure to the air becomes red. A syrup made from the juice with honey is an excellent medicine for old phlegmatic persons in cold weather, when their lungs are stuffed, and the breathing is hindered.

Raw Onions increase the flow of urine, and promote perspiration, insomuch, that a diet of them, with bread, has many a time cured dropsy coming on through a chill at first, or from exposure to cold. They contain the volatile principle, "sulphide of allyl," which is acrid and stimulating. If taken in small quantities, Onions quicken the circulation, and assist digestion; but when eaten more prodigally they disagree.

In making curative Simples, the Onion (and Garlic) should not be boiled, else the volatile essential oil, on which its virtues chiefly depend, will escape during the process.

The principal internal effects of the Onion, the Leek, and Garlic, are stimulation and warmth, so that they are of more salutary use when the subject is of a cold temperament, and when the vital powers are feeble, than when the body is feverish, and the constitution ardently excitable. "They be naught," says Gerard, "for those that be cholericke; but good for such as are replete with raw and phlegmatick humors." Vous tous qui etes gros, et gras, et lymphatiques, avec l'estomac paresseux, mangez l'oignon cru; c'est pour vous que le bon Dieu l'a fait".

Onions, when eaten at night by those who are not feverish, will promote sleep, and induce perspiration. The late Frank Buckland confirmed this statement. He said, "I am sure the essential oil of Onions has soporific powers. In my own case it never fails. If I am much pressed with work, and feel that I am not disposed to sleep, I eat two or three small Onions, and the effect is magical." The Onion has a very sensitive organism, and absorbs all morbid matter that comes in its way. During our last epidemic of cholera it puzzled the sanitary inspectors of a northern town why the tenants of one cottage in an infected row were not touched by the plague. At last some one noticed a net of onions hanging in the fortunate house, and on examination all these proved to have become diseased. But whilst welcoming this protective quality, the danger must be remembered of eating an onion which shows signs of decay, for it cannot be told what may have caused this distemper.

When sliced, and applied externally, the raw Onion serves by its pungent and essential oil to quicken the circulation, and to redden the skin of the particular surface treated in this way; very usefully so in the case of an unbroken chilblain, or to counteract neuralgic pain; but in its crude state the bulb is not emollient or demulcent. If employed as a poultice for ear-ache, or broken chilblains, the Onion should be roasted, so as to modify its acrid oil. When there is a constant arid painful discharge of fetid matter from the ear, or where an abscess is threatened, with pain, heat, and swelling, a hot poultice of roasted Onions will be found very useful, and will mitigate the pain. The juice of a sliced raw Onion is alkaline, and will quickly relieve the acid venom of a sting from a wasp, or bee, if applied immediately to the part.

A tincture is made (H.) from large, red, strong Onions for medicinal purposes. As a warming expectorant in chronic bronchitis, or asthma, or for a cold which is not of a feverish character, from half to one teaspoonful of this tincture may be given with benefit three or four times in the day in a wineglassful of hot water, or hot milk. Likewise, a jorum (i.e., an earthen bowl) of hot Onion broth taken at bedtime, serves admirably to soothe the air passages, and to promote perspiration; after the first feverish stage of catarrh or influenza has passed by. To make this, peel a large Spanish Onion, and divide it into four parts; then put them into a saucepan, with half a salt spoonful of salt, and two ounces of butter, and a pint of cold water; let them simmer gently until quite tender; next pour all into a bowl which has been made hot, dredging a little pepper over; and let the porridge be eaten as hot as it can be taken.

The allyl and sulphur in the bulbs, together with their mucilaginous parts, relieve the sore mucous membranes, and quicken perspiration, whilst other medicinal virtues are exercised at the same time on the animal economy.

By eating a few raw parsley sprigs immediately afterwards, the strong smell which onions communicates to the breath may be removed and dispelled. Lord Bacon averred "the rose will be sweeter if planted in a bed of onions." So nutritious does the Highlander find this vegetable, that, if having a few raw bulbs in his pocket, with oat-cake, or a crust of bread, he can travel for two or three days together without any other food. Dean Swift said:--

"This is every cook's opinion, No savory dish without an onion, But lest your kissing should be spoiled, Your onions must be fully boiled."

Provings have been made by medical experts of the ordinary red Onion in order to ascertain what its toxical effects are when pushed to an excessive degree, and it has been found that Onions, Leeks, or Garlic, when taken immoderately, induce melancholy and depression, with severe catarrh. They dispose to sopor, lethargy, and even insanity. The immediate symptoms are extreme watering of the eyes after frequent sneezing, confusion of the head, and heavy defluxion from the nose, with pains in the throat extending to the ears; in a word, all the accompaniments of a bad cold, sneezings, lacrymation, pains in the forehead, and a hoarse, hacking cough. These being the effects of taking Onions in a harmful quantity, it is easy to understand that when the like morbid symptoms have arisen spontaneously from other causes, as from a sharp catarrh of the head and chest, then modified forms of the Onion are calculated to counteract them on the law of similar, so that a cure is promptly produced. On which principle the Onion porridge is a scientific remedy, as food, and as Physic, during the first progress of a catarrhal attack, and pari passu the medicinal tincture of the red Onion may be likewise curatively given.

Spanish Onions, which are imported into this country in the winter, are sweet and mucilaginous. A peasant in Spain will munch an onion just as an English laborer eats an apple.

At the present day Egyptians take onions, roasted, and each cut into four pieces, with small bits of baked meat, and slices of an acid apple, which the Turks call kebobs. With this sweet and savory dish they are so delighted, that they trust to enjoy it in paradise. The Israelites were willing to return to slavery and brick-making for their love of the Onion; and we read that Hecamedes presented some of the bulbs to Patrochus, in "Homer", as a regala. These are supplied liberally to the antelopes and giraffes in our Zoological Gardens, which animals dote on the Onion.

A clever paraprase of the word Onion may be read in the lines:

"Charge! Stanley, charge! On! Stanley, on! Were the last words of Marmion. If I had been in Stanley's place When Marmion urged him to the chase, In me you quickly would descry What draws a tear from many an eye."

For chilblains apply onions with salt pounded together, and for inflamed or protruding piles, raw Onion pulp, made by bruising the bulb, if kept bound to the parts by a compress, and renewed as needed, will afford certain relief.


The Garlic (Allium sativum), Skorodon of the Greeks, which was first cultivated in English gardens in 1540, takes its name, from gar, a spear; and leac, a plant, either because of its sharp tapering leaves, or perhaps as "the war plant," by reason of its nutritive and stimulating qualities for those who do battle. It is known also to many as "Poor-man's Treacle," or "Churls Treacle," from being regarded by rustics as a treacle, or antidote to the bite of any venomous reptile.

The bulb, consisting of several combined cloves, is stimulating, antispasmodic, expectorant, and diuretic. Its active properties depend on an essential oil which may be readily obtained by distillation. A medicinal tincture is made (H.) with spirit of wine, of which from ten to twenty drops may be taken in water several times a day. Garlic proves useful in asthma, whooping-cough, and other spasmodic affections of the chest. For all adult, one or more cloves may be eaten at a time. The odor of the bulb is very diffusible, even when it is applied to the soles of the feet its odor is exhaled by the lungs.

When bruised and mixed with lard, it makes a most useful opbdeldoc to be rubbed

in for irritable spines of indolent scrofulous tumours or gout, until the skin surface becomes red and glowing. If employed thus over the chest (back and front) of a child with whooping-cough, it proves eminently helpful.

Raw Garlic, when applied to the skin, reddens it, and the odor sniffed into the nostrils will revive an hysterical sufferer. It formed the principal ingredient in the "Four thieves' vinegar," which was adopted so successfully at Marseilles for protection against the plague, when prevailing there. This originated with four thieves, who confessed that, whilst protected by the liberal use of aromatic vinegar during the plague, they plundered the dead bodies of its victims with complete security. Or, according to another explanation of the name, an old tract, printed in 1749, testifies that one, Richard Forthave, who lived in Bishopsgate Street, invented and sold a vinegar which had such a run that he soon grew famous, and that his surname became thus corrupted in the course of time.

But long before the plague at Marseilles (1722) vinegar was employed as a disinfectant. With Cardinal Wolsey it was a constant custom to carry in his hand an orange emptied of its pulp, and containing a sponge soaked in vinegar made aromatic with spices, so as to protect himself from infection when passing through the crowds which his splendor and his office attracted.

It is related that during a former outbreak of infectious fever in Somer's Town and St. Giles's, the French priests, who constantly used Garlic in all their dishes, visited the worst cases in the dirtiest hovels with impunity, while the English clergy, who were similarly engaged, but who did not eat onions in like fashion, caught the infection in many instances, and fell victims to the disease.

For toothache and earache, a clove of Garlic stripped of its skin, and cut in the form of a suppository, if thrust in the ear of the aching side, will soon assuage the pain. If introduced into the lower bowel, it will help to destroy thread worms, and when swallowed it abolishes round worms.

As a condiment, Garlic undoubtedly aids digestion by stimulating the circulation, with a consequent increase of saliva and gastric juice. The juice from the bulbs can be employed for cementing broken glass or china, by means of its mucilage.

Dr. Bowles, a noted English physician of former times, made use of Garlic with much success as a secret remedy for asthma. He concocted a preserve from the boiled cloves with vinegar and sugar, to be kept in an earthen jar. The dose was a bulb or two with some of the syrup, each morning when fasting. The pain of rheumatic parts may be much relieved by simply rubbing them with cut Garlic.

Garlic emits the most acrimonious smell of all the onion tribe. When leprosy prevailed in this country, Garlic was a prime specific for its relief, and as the victims had to "pil," or peel their own garlic, they were nicknamed "Pil Garlics," and hence it came about that anyone shunned like a leper had this epithet applied to him. Stow says, concerning a man growing old: "He will soon be a peeled garlic like myself."

The strong penetrating odor and taste of this plant, though offensive to most English palates, are much relished by Russians, Poles, and Spaniards, and especially by the Jews. But the Greeks detested Garlic. It is true the Attic husbandmen ate it from remote times, probably in part to drive away by its odor venomous creatures from assailing them; but persons who partook of it were not allowed to enter the temples of Cybele, says Athenaeus; and so hated was garlic, that to have to eat it was a punishment for those that had committed the most horrid crimes; Horace, among the Romans, was made ill by eating garlic at the table of Maecenas; and afterwards (in his third Epode) he reviled the plant as, Cicutis allium nocentius, "Garlic more poisonous than hemlock." Sir Theodore Martin has thus spiritedly translated the passage:

"If his old father's throat any impious sinner, Has cut with unnatural hand to the bone: Give him garlick--more noxious than hemlock--at dinner; Ye gods! what strong stomachs the reapers must own!"

The singular property is attributed to Garlic, that if a morsel of the bulb is chewed by a man running a race, it will prevent his competitors from getting ahead of him. Hungarian jockeys sometimes fasten a clove of garlic to the bits of their racers; and it is said that the horses which run against those thus baited, fall back the moment they smell the offensive odor. If a leg of mutton, before being roasted, has a small clove of Garlic inserted into the knuckle, and the joint is afterwards served with haricot beans (soaked for twenty-four hours before being boiled), it is rendered doubly delicious. In Greece snails dressed with Garlic are now a favorite dish.

A well known "chef" is said to have chewed a small clove of Garlic when he wished to impart its delicate flavor to a choice _pl?, over which he then breathed lightly. Dumas relates that the whole atmosphere of Province is impregnated with the perfume of Garlic, and is exceedingly wholesome to inhale.

As an instance of lunar influences (which undoubtedly affect our bodily welfare), it is remarkable that if Garlic is planted when the moon is in the full, the bulb will be round like an onion, instead of being composed, as it usually is, of several distinct cloves.

Homer says it was to the virtues of the Yellow Garlic (Moly?) Ulysses owed his escape from being changed by Circe into a pig, like each of his companions.

Crow Garlic

The Crow Garlic, vineale, and the purple striped, oleraceum, grow wild in this country. When the former of these is eaten by birds it so stupefies them that they may be taken with the hand.

Concerning the cure of nervous headache by Garlic (and its kindred medicinal herb Asafoetida), an old charm reads thus:

"Give onyons to Saynt Cutlake, And Garlycke to Saynt Cyryake; If ye will shun the headake, Ye shall have them at Queenhyth."


The Asafoetida (Ferula Asafoetida) grows in Western Thibet, and exudes a gum which is used medicinally, coming as a milky juice from the incised root and soon coagulating; it is then exported, having a very powerful odor of garlic which may be perceived a long distance away. Phosphorus and sulphur are among its constituent elements, and, because of the latter, says Dr. Garrod after much observation, he regards Asafoetida as one of the most valuable remedies known to the physician. From three to five grains of the gum in a pill, or half-a-teaspoonful of the tincture, with a small wineglassful of warm milk, may be given for a dose.

Some of the older writers esteemed it highly as an aromatic flavoring spice, and termed it cibus deorum, food of the gods. John Evelyn says (in his Acetaria) "the ancient Silphium thought by many to be none other than the fetid asa, was so highly prized for its taste and virtues, that it was dedicated to Apollo at Delphi, and stamped upon African coins as a sacred plant."

Aristophanes extolled its juice as a restorer of masculine vigor, and the Indians at this day sauce their viands with it. Nor are some of our skilful cooks ignorant how to condite it, with the applause of those who are unaware of the secret. The Silphium, or laserpitium of the Romans, yielded what was a famous restorative, the "Cyrenaic juice." Pareira tells us he was assured by a noted gourmet that the finest relish which a beef steak can possess, may be communicated to it by rubbing the gridiron on which the steak is to be cooked, with Asafoetida.

The gum when given in moderate doses, acts on all parts of the body as a wholesome stimulant, leading among other good results, to improvement of the vision, and enlivening the spirits. But its use is apt to produce eructations smacking of garlic, which may persist for several hours; and, if it be given in over doses, the effects are headache and giddiness. When suitably administered, it quickens the appetite and improves the digestion, chiefly with those of a cold temperament, and languid habit. Smollet says the Romans stuffed their fowls for the table with Asafoetida. In Germany, Sweden, and Italy, it is known as "Devil's Dung."

Leek Flower

Leek Flowerhead

The Leek (Allium porrium) bears an Anglo-Saxon name corrupted from Porleac, and it is also called the Porret, having been the Prason of the Greeks. It was first made use of in England during 1562. This was a food of the poor in ancient Egypt, as is shown by an inscription on one of the Pyramids, whence was derived the phrase, "to eat the Leek"; and its loss was bewailed by the Israelites in their journey through the Desert. It was said by the Romans to be prolific of virtue, because Latona, the mother of Apollo, longed after leeks. The Welsh, who take them much, are observed to be very fruitful. They dedicate these plants to St. David, on whose day, March 1st, in 640, the Britons (who were known to each other by displaying in their caps, at the inspiration of St. David, some leeks, "the fairest emblym that is worne," plucked in a garden near the field of action) gained a complete victory over the Saxons.

The bulb contains some sulphur, and is, in its raw state, a stimulating expectorant. Its juice acts energetically on the kidneys, and dissolves the calculus formations of earthy phosphates which frequently form in the bladder.

For chilblains, chapped hands, and sore eyes, the juice of a leek squeezed out, and mixed with cream, has been found curative. Old Tusser tells us, in his "Husbandry for March":

"Now leeks are in season, for pottage full good, That spareth the milch cow, and purgeth the blood,"

and a trite proverb of former times bids us:

"Eat leeks in Lide [March] and ramsons in May, Then all the year after physicians can play."

Wild Garlic

Ramsons, or the Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum), is broad leaved, and grows abundantly on our moist meadow banks, with a strong smell of onions when crushed or bruised. It is perennial, having egg-shaped or lance-like leaves, whilst bearing large, pearly-white blossoms with acute petals. The name is the plural of "Ramse," or "Ram," which signifies strong-smelling, or rank. And the plant is also called "Buck Rams," or "Buck Rampe," in allusion to its spadix or spathe. "The leaves of Ramsons," says Gerard, "are stamped and eaten with fish, even as we do eat greene sauce made with sorrell." This is "Bear's Garlic," and the Star Flower of florists.

Leeks were so highly esteemed by the Emperor Nero, that his subjects gave him the sobriquet of "Porrophagus." He took them with oil for several days in each month to clear his voice, eating no bread on those days. "Un remede d'Empereur (Neron) pour se debarrasser d'un rhume,--et de comm? pour attendre le meme but--fut envelopper un oignon dans une feuille de chou et le faire cuire sous la cendre; puis l'ecrasser, le reduire en pulpe, le mettre dans une tasse de lait, ou une decoction chaude de redisse; se coucher; et se tenir chaudement, au besoin recidiver matin et soir".

The Scotch leek is more hardy and pungent than that grown in England. It was formerly a favorite ingredient in the Cock-a-Leekie soup of Caledonia, which is so graphically described by Sir Walter Scott, in the "Fortunes of Nigel".

A "Herby" pie, peculiar to Cornwall, is made of leeks and pilchards, or of nettles, pepper cress, parsley, mustard, and spinach, with thin slices of pork. At the bottom of the Squab pie mentioned before was a Squab, or young Cormorant, "which diffused," says Charles Kingsley, "through the pie, and through the ambient air, a delicate odor of mingled guano and polecat." That "lovers live by love, as larks by leeks," is an old saying; and in the classic story of Pyramus and Thisbe, reference is made to the beautiful emerald green which the leaves of the leek exhibit. "His eyes were as green as leeks." Among the Welsh farmers, it is a neighborly custom to attend on a certain day and plough the land of a poor proprietor whose means are limited--each bringing with him one or more leeks for making the soup or broth.


The Schalot, or Eschalotte, is another variety of the onion tribe, which was introduced into England by the Crusaders, who found it growing at Ascalon. And Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are an ever green perennial herb of the onion tribe, having only a mild, alliaceous flavor. Epicures consider the Schalot to be the best seasoning for beef steaks, either by taking the actual bulb, or by rubbing the plates therewith.

Again, as a most common plant in all our hedgerows, is found the Poor

Man's Garlic, or Sauce-alone (Erisymum alliaria), from eruo, to cure, a somewhat coarse and most ordinary member of the onion tribe, which goes also by the names of "Jack by the hedge" and "Garlick-wort," and belongs to the cruciferous order of plants. When bruised, it gives out a strong smell of garlic, and when eaten by cows it makes their milk taste powerfully of onions. The Ancients, says John Evelyn, used "Jack by the hedge" as a succedaneum to their Scordium, or cultivated Garlic.

This herb grows luxuriantly, bearing green, shining, heart-shaped leaves, and headpieces of small, white-flowering bunches. It was named "Saucealone," from being eaten in the Springtime with meat, whilst having so strong a flavour of onions, that it served alone of itself for sauce. Perhaps (says Dr. Prior) the title "Jack by the hedge" is derived from "jack," or "jakes," an old English word denoting a privy, or house of office, and this in allusion to the fetid smell of the plant, and the usual place of its growth.

When gathered and eaten with boiled mutton, after having been first separately boiled, it makes an excellent vegetable, if picked as it approaches the flowering state. Formerly this herb was highly valued as an antiscorbutic, and was thought a most desirable pot herb.

(The Erysimum officinale (Hedge Mustard) and the Vervain (Verbena) make Count Mattaei's empirical nostrum Febrifugo: but this Erysimum is not the same plant as the Jack by the hedge.)


Herb Simples

The Primitive Simplers presented here show the way of life in other generations, it is not suggested or recommended trying them yourself.

Garden Herbs

  History of Herbs
  Herb Gardening
  Herbs for Beginners
  Drying & Preserving Herbs
  Indoor Herb Gardening
  Herb Garden Hints & Tips

Herbal Cooking

  Herb Chart
  Using Herbs
  Culinary Herbs
  Herb Oil and Vinegar
  Herb Teas
  Herb Candy
  Herb Jelly

Herb Simples

  Alphabetical Listing

Trade Recipes Online
Share your Recipes with others!!



Copyright 2005- Garden Herbs