“Ciboule” is the common French name for a type of onion that is formally known as ‘Allium fistulosum. Unfortunately “Ciboule” is often translated into English as “green onions” which is literally true but what we know here as green onions are not Ciboule or A. fistulosum. In America green onions are immature bulbing onions most commonly White Lisbon or something close to that. These are not Allium fistulosum but rather Allium cepa.
Allium fistulosum onions are non-bulbing perennial plants that propagate in clumps and have distinctive round fragile leaves. There are several varieties but all are believed to have originated in Asia. As perennial onions made their way outside of Asia some varieties were given exotic but incorrect names such as “Egyptian onions” or “Welsh onions.” Neither name correctly suggests their origins but the names have none-the-less stuck.
“Ciboule” or perennial onions occupy a unique niche in the garden by offering fresh onions for harvest year round. In very cold climates they can be covered by straw and will generally green up with the first thaws of spring. Here in California they are green year around but do most of their clumping during the winter and very early spring.
Ciboule onions are prized in France and Asia but they are not grown commercially in the United States. A hundred years ago it was common to find a patch of perennial onions in an American home garden but today few gardeners are attracted to the joys of year-around weeding that they require. A few named heirloom varieties continue to make the rounds amongst US collectors. These include “Evergreen Hardy”, “Stevenson Multiplier,” “Welsh” and Franz Bunching. It is unclear if these varieties are unique. In Asia there are a number of stable varieties of fistulosum onions that qualify for heirloom status. One of the best is “Red Beard.”
Ciboule onions are notable for their subtle onion flavor and the absence of the heat found in bulbed onions. Although they are not technically “sweet” they do taste that way in a relative sense. Some claim that Ciboule can become bitter if overcooked but I’ve not experienced that outcome. I do agree with many gardeners that Ciboule do taste differently depending upon the timing of the harvest. Their freshest flavor is in late winter or spring. But that is not to say that I’d pass up a Ciboule any other time of year.
Perhaps the most famous gastronomic story about Ciboule comes from The Passionate Epicure by Marcel Rouff. His fictional gourmand Dodin-Bouffant was wild about Ciboule. In the real world few things can compare with fresh Ciboule slow cooked in butter and served against a delicate white fish with herbs.
These Ciboule were grown organically in my garden in the Valley of the Moon. The origin of my patch was from French stock. I did the weeding and the cows made the manure.