Herbs in History: Onion


Allium cepa L.


By Alain Touwaide & Emanuela Appetiti | February 2024

Share this Entry:

Layers of Stories


Illustration 1: Onion (Allium cepa L.)

Though not a medicinal plant strictly speaking, onion (Allium cepa L.) greatly benefits human health (Illustration 1). Current literature concords in crediting it with a many properties: anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antispasmodic, carminative, diuretic, anthelmintic, expectorant, febrifuge, hypoglycemic, hypotensive, lithotripic, stomachic, and tonic. It is no surprise that it is abundantly used in alimentation, raw or cooked, boiled or baked, braised or grilled, pickled or caramelized, entire or finely chopped, in salad or soups, in stews and sandwiches, in combination with other vegetables and foodstuffs or by itself. Its history is as varied as its actions, uses and layers, with tears and weather prediction, omnipresence and local productions, facts and beliefs.

Deep Time

Best grown in the Mediterranean climate thanks to the hot and dry summers, onion is deeply rooted in the history of the Greek World. According to mythology, Crommus—whose name is that of the onion in ancient Greek, krommuon, transformed into a name for a male individual—was the son of one of the most important gods of the first generation of the Olympians, Poseidon, the god of the sea. Crommus was credited with the foundation of the homonymous town, Crommyon, in the area of ancient Corinthia (close to Corinth). Crommyon might have specialized in the production of onion or, as the subsequent literature suggests, grew a species that was particularly appreciated. This possible local production justifies the name given to the coast between the closest city of Megara and Crommyon: Crommyonia—the onionish (Illustration 2).

The Krommyonia coast, between Megara and Corinth.

Illustration 2: The Krommyonia coast, between Megara and Corinth (Google Maps)

Though typical of the Greek World, cultivation of onions was not limited to it, but was widespread. When the historian Herodotus (484?-ca. 430 BCE) drew a map of his time and dealt with the peoples at the very limit of the known world, he characterized the populations to the Northeast, on the Black Sea, by the foodstuffs they were growing, including onions (History of the Persian Wars 4.17):

… midway in the coastline of all Scythia, the first inhabitants are the Callippidae … beyond them another tribe called Alazones; these and the Callippidae … sow and eat corn, and onions, garlic, lentils, and millet. Above the Alazones … north of these, the Neuri; to the north of the Neuri the land is uninhabited so far as we know.

For the Greeks, onion was not only an identity-maker, but also a food of choice. In the Iliad, the founding epopee of Greek culture that reports in an epic tone the war waged by the Greeks against the Trojans possibly in the 13th or 12th century BCE and codified in writing by Homer in the 8th century, onion is served to the warriors coming from the battlefield in an elegantly dressed light meal in the tent of the wise Nestor (Iliad 11.628-632):

… Hecamede … first drew a table, fair, with deep-blue feet and well-polished, and set on it a basket of bronze. In it an onion, a relish for their drink, pale honey, and a ground meal of holy barley. And beside all this, a beautiful cup, which the old man [Nestor] had brought from home [Greece] …

Onion was not eaten freshly harvested, but dried, when its outest layer had become thin and almost transparent. In the Odyssey, narrating the long sailing of Ulysses from Troy to Ithaca, this layer of dried onions provides to the author a nice image to describe a fine fabric. When Ulysses had reached home under a disguisement, Penelope tested him to ascertain his identity—since there had been so many pretendents who approached her claiming that Ulysses was dead hoping to marry her. She asked this man whom she was testing (since she had not recognized Ulysses because of his disguisement) to describe Ulysses when he left for Troy. Without revealing his identity, Ulysses described himself at that crucial moment. About his clothing, here is how he evoked it (Odyssey 19.232-235):

... the tunic about his body, all shining as is the sheen upon the skin of a dried onion, so sheer it was and soft; and it glistened like the sun. Many indeed were the women who admired it ...

Though abundantly eaten, onion could be negatively connoted. In his playwright Peace, staged for the first time in 421 BCE at the eve of the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War, the author Aristophanes (446-386 BCE) put these words in the mouth of one of his personages (Trygaeus), who celebrates peace, the harvest, grapes, wine and joy, and remembers his militay backpack and the smell of camps in an exchange with Hermes (Aristophanes, Peace, 520-530):

Trygaeus. Giver of Grapes, how shall I address you?
Good morning, Harvesthome: good morn, Mayfair.
O what a lovely charming face, Mayfair,
O what a breath ! how fragrant to my heart,
How sweet, how soft, with perfume and inaction.
Hermes. Not quite the odour of a knapsack, eh?
Trygaeus. Faugh! That odious pouch of odious men, I hate it.
It has a smell of rancid-onion-whiffs;
But, She, of harvests, banquets, festivals, ...

Agriculture and Medicine


Illustration 3: Askalon (Google Map)

Growing of onions was particularly developed in Greece, with a great variety of species and related agricultural techniques. Many such varieties were identified by their area of cultivation as might have been the case for the town of Crommyon. One famous local production was the Ascalonian onion, from Ascalon on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean (Illustration 3). As the story goes, this production was discovered by Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) and his troops on their way to the East during their expedition up to India. It was further brought to the Greek World where it was very much appreciated.
In his Inquiry into Plants (Historia Plantarum), Theophrastus (ca. 371-ca. 287 BCE), the Father of Botany, devotes a long chapter to the many species grown and available in Greece in his time, with their taste and peculiarities (7.4.7-10):

There are also various kinds of onion and of garlic. Those of the onion are the more numerous; for instance, those called after their localities Sardian, Cnidian, Samothracian; and again, the annual, the shallot, and that of Ascalon. Of these, the annual kind is small but very sweet, while the shallot and the Ascalonian differ plainly as to their character as well as in respect of their cultivation.

For the shallot  kind, they leave it untended in winter with its foliage, but they strip off the outside leaves in spring and tend the plant in other ways. When the leaves are stripped off, others grow, and division takes place underground at the same time, which is the reason of the name shallot [divided in Greek]…

Some also show differences in color. At Issus, are found plants which in other respects resemble the others, but which are extremely white in color. And they are said to bear onions like those of Sardis. Most distinct, however, is the character of the Cretan kind, which resembles to some extent that of Ascalon ...

All are planted after the rising of Arcturus [early Autumn] while the earth is still warm, so that the rains may come upon them after planting ...

In medicine, onions are prescribed in the set of writings attributed—but not by—Hippocrates (465 – between 375 and 350 BCE). Strangely, however, medicinal uses are not as abundant as one would expect considering the numerous alimentary uses. A possible explanation of this apparent paradox can be found in the treatise On regimen, seemingly written by Polybus, Hippocrates’ son-in-law. The work dates to the years 410-400 BCE and was produced in the so-called School of Kos, the native island of Hippocrates. There, the properties of onion are described as follows (2.54):

The onion is good for sight, but bad for the body, because it is hot and burning, and does not lead to stool; for without giving nourishment or help to the body, it warms and dries on account of its juice.

In another Hippocratic treatise, Affections, apparently coming from the School of Cnidus, on the continent in front of the Island of Kos, and dated to the years 380s BCE, the activity of onions is identified in a different way, but, nevertheless, with a recommendation to avoid them in medical treatment (Affections 54):

Of vegetables … onions are diuretic because their juice possesses a certain acridness that makes urine flow; use garlic and onions for this purpose, but do not administer them to the ill.

It is no surprise that onion is not much prescribed in Hippocratic medicine. It is mostly used in gynecology—including to provoke an abortion—, as a laxative for children, against jaundice and alopecia, and in the treatment of a cerebral affection not otherwise identified.

Onion in the manuscript of Padua, Seminary

Illustration 4: Onion in the manuscript of Padua, Seminary, 194, f. 85 recto (Constantinople, 14th cent.)

Centuries later, in the all-embracing encyclopedia of materia medica compiled in the 1st century CE by Dioscorides, onion is treated in a rather synthetic way, with, nevertheless, some reference to species, with their organoleptic properties (Illustration 4). The list of its applications, not all therapeutic, is somehow disorganized with material collected in an apparently haphazard way (2.151):

The long onion is sharper than the round, the yellow sharper than the white, the dry sharper than the fresh, and the raw sharper than either the cooked or the pickled.
All onions are pungent and cause flatulence. They stimulate the appetite, attenuate, are thirst-making, cause nausea, cleanse, ease the bowel, favor excretions including for hemorrhoids, and are used as suppositories peeled and dipped in olive oil.
Their juice smeared with honey helps against amblyopia, cornea white spots, ocular opacity also more general, and sore throats in unction.
It provokes menstruation, clears the head when injected in the nose, and in combination with salt, rue, and honey, it is used in a cataplasm for people bitten by dogs.
Rubbed on with vinegar in the sun, it cleans white skin spots. With an equal amount of ashes, it stops blepharitis, and with salt it treats pimples.
Its juice with chicken fat is useful for shoes bite, as well as for hardness of hearing, singing in the ears, purulent ears, water in the ears, and for alopecia when rubbed on …
It also causes headaches.
Taken in excessive quantity in cases of disease, onions make patients lethargic.
When boiled, they become more diuretic.


Emanuela Forlini

Illustration 5: Every evening on 24 January, Emanuela Forlini (in Urbania, Marche, Italy) prepares the onion wedges and leaves them for the night by an open windowsill

Apparently not favored as a therapeutic agent in ancient medicine—perhaps because it was well present in another way in health maintenance, through alimentation—onion has crossed the centuries in literature from Aristophanes (Frogs 654) to Shakespeare (Antony and Cleopatra 45-46 and 185-186) for the lacrimation it provokes when peeled.

Last but far from least, onion has been used for centuries as a unique weather forecast instrument in many countries, included some parts of the United States, in a ritual that takes place on January 1st to predict the weather of the whole year.

In Italy, particularly, where this ritual is still very much alive, it must take place in the night of January 24. The date is significant: it is the day of Saint Paul’s conversion on his way to Damascus. Farmers call that night “the night of Saint Paul of signs” and consider it the perfect night to make predictions. Interestingly, this tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages, has been the topic of a master’s thesis in Cultural Anthropology at Bologna University (Italy) in 2006-2007. Here are the instructions (Illustration 5):

Chop a medium onion into quarters and place 12 of the largest pieces on a wooden chopping board in two parallel rows. The top row represents January to June, the bottom represents July to December.

Sprinkle a generous pinch of fine, non-iodised salt on each slice and leave the board on a windowsill facing east with the window open.

At dawn [around 05:30 am], bring your board inside and analyze your onions straight away [within 15-20 minutes because the internal heat could modify the impact of the salt on the thin slices]. The top of each slice represents the first 10 days of each month, the middle the second 10 days and the bottom the third portion.

Undissolved salt means dry and sunny; melted salt means rain, possibly snow for a winter month; slices hardened with salt crystals mean frost and/or snow; bubbles mean humidity.

Since the prediction is based on how the slices have interacted with the salt and the external environment, it is valid only for the area where the ritual takes place and cannot be extrapolated to the whole region or applied to any other.

Regardless of the predictions, the day traditionally ends with a rich onion soup to prevent or treat the discomfort that the year and its weather might bring in a meal that the ancient Greeks wouldn’t have disliked.

European Medicines Agency (27 March 2012): EMA/HMPC/347195/2011 Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC) Assessment report on Allium cepa L., bulbus
Islam M. F. et al. (2024). Green synthesis of zinc oxide nano particles using Allium cepa L. waste peel extracts and its antioxidant and antibacterial activities. Heliyon 10(3) (2024), e25430.
Elattar M. M. et al. (2024). An ethnopharmacological, phytochemical, and pharmacological overview of onion (Allium cepa L.). Journal of Ethnopharmacology 324 (2024), 117779. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2024.117779
Chakraborty A. J. et al. (2022). Allium cepa: A Treasure of Bioactive Phytochemicals with Prospective Health Benefits. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2022), 4586318.
Kianian F. et al. (2021). Pharmacological Properties of Allium cepa, Preclinical and Clinical Evidences. A Review. Iranian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research 20(2) (2021), pp. 107–134. https://doi.org/10.22037/ijpr.2020.112781.13946
Sidhu J. S., M. Ali, A. Al-Rashdan, N. Ahmed (2019). onion (Allium cepa L.) is potentially a good source of important antioxidants. Journal of Food Science and Technology 56(4) (2019), pp. 1811–1819.
Teshika J. D. et al. (2019). Traditional and modern uses of onion bulb (Allium cepa L.): a systematic review. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 59(suppl. 1) (2019), S39-S70.
Vazquez-Armenta F. J., M. R. Cruz-Valenzuela, J. F. Ayala-Zavala (2016). onion (Allium cepa), in Essential Oils in Food Preservation, Flavor and Safety 2016, pp. 617-623. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780124166417000705
Akash M.S., K. Rehman, S. Chen (2014). Spice plant Allium cepa: dietary supplement for treatment of type 2 diabetes mellitus. Nutrition 30(10) (2014 Oct.), pp. 1128-1137.
Ye C.-L., D. De-Hui, W.-L. Hu (2013). Antimicrobial and antioxidant activities of the essential oil from onion (Allium cepa L.), Food Control 30(1) (March 2013), pp. 48-53. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S095671351200429X
Sampath Kumar K.P. et al. (2010).  Allium cepa: A traditional medicinal herb and its health benefits. Journal of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Research 2(1) (2010), pp. 283-291. https://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/34504139/allium_cepa.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A&Expires=1558041735&Signature=brcdaC%2BWW0pW1CuiuV6b2jTFY0I%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DAvailable_on_line_www_Allium_cepa_A_trad.pdf
Luzi E. (2006-2007). Cosa dicono le cipolle. Pratiche di previsione del tempo a Urbania. Tesi di Laurea in Antropologia Sociale. Alma Mater Studiorum-Università di Bologna, Anno Accademico 2006-2007.
Corea G. et al. (2005). Antispasmodic Saponins from Bulbs of Red onion, Allium cepa L. var. Tropea. Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry 53 (2005), pp. 935-940.
Benkeblia N. (2004). Antimicrobial activity of essential oil extracts of various onions (Allium cepa) and garlic (Allium sativum). LWT - Food Science and Technology 37(2) (March 2004), pp. 263-268.
Campos K.E. et al. (2003). Hypoglycaemic and antioxidant effects of onion, Allium cepa: dietary onion addition, antioxidant activity and hypoglycaemic effects on diabetic rats. International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition 54 (2003), pp. 241-246.
Kalus U. et al. (2000). Influence of the onion as an essential ingredient of the Mediterranean diet on arterial blood pressure and blood fluidity. Arzneimittelforschung 50 (2000), pp. 795-801.
Kalus U 2000
Breu W., W. Dorsch (1994). Allium cepa L. (onion). Chemistry, analysis and pharmacology, in Wagner H., N. R. Farnsworth (eds). Economic Medicinal Plant Research, vol. 6. London: Academic Press, 1994, pp. 115-147

The information presented herein represents the views and opinions of the original authors of the content and does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA). This content has been made available for informational and educational purposes only. AHPA does not make any representation or warranties with respect to the accuracy, applicability, fitness, or completeness of the content.