In early December I began preparations to plant French grey shallots (aka “Griselle Shallots”). I’m not a particularly prompt person but I respect Nature when she has been so clear as to set a date.
Grey shallots are small, tear-shaped bulbs that are beloved in French cooking but nearly unknown here in America. Many botanical texts place them in a unique stature as the only ‘true’ shallot. Our familiar store-bought shallots are a type of clumping onion that grew up from seed. One needn’t be a botanist to tell the difference, however. A grey shallot has a dark, rich and earthy aroma while a supermarket shallot tastes like an onion that has swallowed a cheap antacid.
Grey shallots have drawbacks. They don’t store particularly well nor do they seem to tolerate living under refrigeration, which is a mainstay of modern day vegetable storage. Grey shallots begin to ‘slump’ four or five months post harvest. By Thanksgiving a few shallots will have melted away leaving only a dry husk. And unless chemically poisoned, a true shallot will begin to think of sprouting after a few months of dormancy. As the Winter Solstice approaches on the 22nd of December an intact grey shallot is thinking hard about sprouting roots and shoots.
This delayed yet specific sense of timing in a shallot’s behavior has made its way into a farming maxims that counsel us to “plant and harvest shallots by the Solstice”. You can find those maxims today when talking to the best Allium experts such as John Swenson or you can uncover them in John C. Loudin’s ‘An Encyclopedia of Gardening” in the 1800s. Good advice stores well.
Since the earliest times farming has produced crops and maxims. The crops fed the farmer’s family and the maxims gave the farmer much needed advice. Given the importance of farming to the survival and stability of early human culture it isn’t surprising that farm advice featured prominently in our earliest literary works. A light tillage of the first Western literary cannon uncovers lots of commentary on farming. Mago, Cato, Varro and Pliny all had much to say about farming. Their advice ranged from the general (“In buying a farm do not be too eager” Cato) to the specific ( “Plant wheat (emmer) on October 15.” Pliny ). Taken as a whole their advice is entirely familiar to anyone who has farmed. In any era, past or present, there has always been a neighbor who has the time to tell you what you’ve done wrong.
The ancients crafted their farming maxims from collective observation. There was surprisingly little supernatural or mystical about to their discussions. These were practical people who built trust by accurate observation and reporting. Agricultural quackery was a 20th century invention that began with Rudoph Steiner. Luckily no smart farmer takes Steiner seriously which brings to mind the Camus quote that you can make progress by being wrong if you learn to be wrong all alone.
I began my shallot planting on Christmas Day, three days late of the Solstice. I first uncovered a few hills of grey shallots that I had left in the shallot bed over the summer. As you can see in the photograph they had dutifully sprouted and were ready for division and replanting. By some mechanism a shallot keeps time with an accuracy that matches our invention of the Gregorian calendar. How does a bulb no larger than a nickel sense the shortest day of the year?
Evidence suggests that onions, a cousin to the shallot, manage dormancy by silencing genes responsible for sprout formation. It’s a form of ‘genetic checkmate’ that the onion can maintain for a typical but not permanent length of time. Numerous factors influence this checkmate status including time; temperature; daylight; and the bulb’s maturity when harvested. The innermost details of the mechanism aren’t known but some evidence suggests that histones are involved. Histones are a family of small proteins that are plentiful in the nuclear chromatin structure and they are important in the management of the genes themselves. Histones can act as ‘switches’ that turn adjacent genes on or off. In the case of onions it is thought that declining amounts of a histone called H2 might act as a switch to activate the sprouting process. The search is on to discover why onion histone H2 changes with time and temperature but there are abundant clues in both plants and animals that histones can be tweaked by factors external to the cell’s internal environment.
Recent work with flowering plants has shown that cold temperatures can have a cumulative effect of changing the histones that surround the chromatin structure on cells that make up the bud structure. When enough exposure to cold has taken place the plant’s genes that inhibit flowering get turned ‘off.’ Any subsequent warming spell can trigger a second temperature-sensitive pathway that leads to blossoming. Anyone who has seen a cherry tree blooming in February can appreciate that irony.
I am confident that one day that we will know what manner of switch or clock that tells a grey shallot to sprout. It will probably involve a great number of steps each with its own universe of variation. Fate may have it that whoever discovers the identities and the script for this biological play will win a prize, perhaps a Nobel. If they do I can imagine them being questioned for a summary of their work that can be of practical use for the non-scientific community. I trust that they will say “Plant Grey Shallots on the Winter Solstice. Harvest them on the Summer Solstice.”
Good advice stores well.
Vegetables of Interest, 2007