Sunday, May 22, 2022

Yorktown quirks: Don’t pick the onions

The Yorktown Onion (WYDaily/Courtesy of National Park Service, Colonial National Historical Park - Yorktown Battlefield)
The Yorktown Onion (WYDaily/Courtesy of Linda Williams, National Park Service, Colonial National Historical Park – Yorktown Battlefield)

In the summer, Yorktown has much to offer: Residents and visitors can enjoy scenic views of revolutionary battlefields, museums, sandy beaches and historic homes.

But don’t pick the onions.

Along the Colonial Parkway and throughout Yorktown, there are bulbous, 3-inch-wide purple flowers that sit atop thin, 3-foot-long dark green stems.

Called the Yorktown Onion — or, officially, the Wild Leek — the plants look like a creation straight out of Dr. Seuss’ imagination, said Linda Williams, an interpretive park ranger with the National Park Service.

“They look like something out of one of his books,” Williams said.

They are doubly protected: National Park Service rangers in Colonial National Historical Park will give warnings to those picking the onions on federal lands, and the York County Code also prohibits them from being taken.

Even the National Park Service maintenance staff tries to avoid mowing over them during landscaping, Williams said.

“Because they’re such a unique plant, York County decided it was important to protect them,” Williams said. “As a federal park, we’ve followed suit.”

York County spokeswoman Gail Whittaker said the protection for the Yorktown Onion first appeared in the county’s 1982 Code Book.

The Yorktown Onion (WYDaily/Courtesy of National Park Service, Colonial National Historical Park - Yorktown Battlefield)
The Yorktown Onion (WYDaily/Courtesy of Linda Williams, National Park Service, Colonial National Historical Park – Yorktown Battlefield)

While the flowers are unique, the plant is an actual onion. It is native to southern Russia, but was brought to England in 1596. How the plant ended up in Yorktown remains a mystery.

“Apparently it’s edible,” she added.

Williams said the plant has adapted to Yorktown and its weather over time. The Yorktown Onion used to have a 6-foot stem and 5-inch flowers, but has shrunken to about 3 feet long and 3 inches wide.

The flowers generally bloom in May and last about a month.

“It was believed — maybe true for a long time — that this is the only area they grew in,” Williams said.

National Park Service information says the Wild Leek can also be found in some other parts of the southern U.S. and California.

Those who want Yorktown Onions of their own can purchase them from a couple different sources.

The York-Poquoson Extension Office typically sells the Yorktown Onion plant during their annual sale on the first Saturday of May, Whittaker said.

“In addition, anyone can buy the bulbs online,” she added.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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