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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Cherokee Elder Shares Wild Onion Knowledge
by Will Chavez - Cherokee Phoenix Staff Writer

BRIGGS, Okla. – Digging wild onions near her home east of Tahlequah is a spring tradition for Cherokee elder Dorothy Ice.

She digs the onions quickly as her long kitchen knife loosens the thin green plants, 6-8 inches tall, from the dirt near a small stream in Pumpkin Hollow. At the bottom of the plant are nearly flat bulbs with roots. She will later trim the roots and eat the bulbs along with the green stalks.

Ice smiles and laughs as she recalls lessons her parents taught her about picking the onions and living off the land during all four seasons.

"We never went hungry," she said. "My mother canned fruit, green beans, poke salad. She never froze any food. She always canned it."

She remembers how her mother would leave a pot of brown beans cooking while they dug wild onions and how the beans would be ready for supper along with the wild onions and eggs.

To cook wild onions is simple, Ice said.

"It doesn't take long to cook the onions. It takes about as long as it takes the eggs to cook," she said.

Using a cast-iron skillet is the best way to cook the eggs and onion, Ice suggested. After the onions are finely chopped, she puts the onions and eggs in the greased skillet and keeps stirring the mixture until it thickens, about five minutes, and the eggs are cooked.

Ice said wild onions are best eaten right after they are picked because the plants do not usually freeze well or keep their flavor after being frozen.

Ice, who is 74, said she usually starts digging wild onions in February and continues digging them into May. She uses a kitchen knife to dig with, but said a 10- to 12-inch file is the best tool she has found for digging wild onions out of the ground.

"I usually start the third week in February until it's all gone. You can still eat the stems if that's all that's left (in May)," she said.

She said she usually goes alone to dig onions because it allows her "to pick and loaf" if she wants.

Some wild onion diggers have a secret spot where they go, but Ice said she doesn't have one and digs onions "just wherever."

"I just drive around until I see a spot where I think there would be onions and then I get out and pick them," she said.

Some wild plants were late this year due to cold weather and snow in March, but Ice said the wild onion arrived on schedule. In February, the onions are about 3 inches tall, she said, and around the first of April the plant is about 8 inches tall and begins to grow seeds near the top of its stalk.

One important lesson her mother taught her about digging onion was to not mistake crow poison for wild onions. The plant looks similar to wild onions, she said, with its green stalk. But, she added, if you set the plants side by side you can see the crow poison has a round bulb instead of a nearly flat one like wild onions. Also, crow poison usually has a shorter stalk and white flowers bloom on some of the stalks.

"She (her mother) said just one stem (of crow poison) will ruin a whole pot of onions when you're cooking it," Ice said.

To ensure she has wild onions to dig next year, Ice cleans the onions where she digs them and throws the roots on the ground. If she takes the onions home to clean, she said she throws the roots in her yard.

"I have wild onions growing in the edge of the yard right now," she said with a smile.

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