Members of the Allium genus often look similar and are difficult to tell apart, often relying on such characteristics as the microscopic reticulations on the outer coat of the bulb to distinguish between species. I believe these specimens are Lemmon’s onion (Allium lemmonii) and would appreciate the opinion of a botanist with more skills than I possess.
Lemmon’s onion grows in drying clay soils between approximately 4,000 to 6250 feet. Our wetter than usual spring gave us a plethora of plant species and a riot of color in the drying vernal pools near our ranch. These specimens were photographed in our “Coyote Pasture” and in a pasture directly to the east of our property on County Road 87 near Lookout CA (Modoc County). This native perennial is considered a plant of the Great Basin and can be found in Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho and Utah.
A scape (leafless stalk) arises from the round Lemmon’s onion bulb. The outer coat of the bulb have distinctive oblong reticulations in vertical rows. The two basal leaves are approximately the same height as the scape and are slightly sickle-shaped. The inflorescence is a terminal umbel subtended by two (sometimes 4) ovate bracts that gradually taper to a point. The pediceled flowers have 6 white to pink tepals (structures that cannot be identified as specifically petals or sepals). The stamens with yellow or lavender anthers are as long as the tepals. The ovary has a ridged or crested mound shape. Lemmon’s onion fruits are three-chambered capsules.
The entire Lemmon’s onion plant has an onion smell and is edible. The bulbs have a mild taste, like shallots, and make a good trail snack. The leaves can be used in any recipe calling for green onions. Native Americans employed Lemmon’s onion preparations as an antiseptic, diuretic, expecorant and carminative (reduce gas). Modern herbalists reduce cholesterol levels in the bloodstream with Lemmon’s onion.
Lemmon’s onion is a member of the Amaryllis Family (Amaryllidaceae). The genus name, Allium, is Latin for garlic. John Gill Lemmon (1831 – 1908) is honored by the species designation. Lemmon, along with his wife, Sara Allen Plummer Lemmon, collected plants throughout the American West. They also established the Lemmon Herbarium, now a part of UC Berkeley and Jepson Herbaria.