Several hundred years ago, the Tohono O’odham American Indians farmed more than 18,000 acres in southern Arizona along the Gila and Salt rivers.

The plant: Several hundred years ago, the Tohono O’odham American Indians farmed more than 18,000 acres in southern Arizona along the Gila and Salt rivers. The Tohono O’odhams were wonderfully skilled at growing to take advantage of seasonal monsoon rain, and they placed their farms near the mouths of large washes. Each rain would deliver to their fields bits of animal droppings and nitrogen-rich organic matter from legume trees (paloverde, ironwood and mesquite), providing a steady supply of natural fertilizer. They cultivated fields of squash, beans, corn and a wonderful little onion known as i’itoi, introduced by Spaniards in 1699.

I'TOI ONION, plant of the week, Gabriel Utasi, Tribune, Baboquivari Peak, O'odham, bunching onion, Ajo, Tohono O'odham American Indians
ILLUSTRATION BY GABRIEL UTASI, TRIBUNE

The i’itoi is believed to be named after the spirit i’itoi, which lives at the top of the Baboquivari Peak, a sacred mountain of the O’odham people near Ajo. This bunching onion has been cultivated over the past 300 years to thrive in our low desert. It is virtually unknown in mainstream gardening and has been “red-listed” by the slow food movement as one of America’s endangered foods. I first learned about this onion from Frank Martin, one of our Valley’s best growers of American Indian food crops. One taste of this onion and I was over the moon — I couldn’t believe the flavor. When Frank told me it produces almost all year long, I knew I had found a botanical gem.

Maintenance: After your i’itois have established a nice mound of growth, begin harvesting the green stems. Stems may die back in the summer sun, but monsoon rain will make them sprout again. Harvest the shallot-sized onions as you need them, but be sure to leave some behind so you can enjoy more later. If a clump becomes a bit too large, share the bulbs with friends or transplant portions to other areas of your garden.

Growing guide: Full sun exposure

Cultural notes: Above the ground, the i’itoi onion looks like a bunch of scallions or large chives, and its deep green stems are sturdy and full of robust flavor.

Underground, it can produce up to 120 shallot-sized onions in a single season. Plant bulbs or transplants in early fall or early spring. Prepare soil for vegetable gardening. Be patient: The i’itoi can take three to six months to mature. More drought-tolerant than most onions, the i’itoi uses about a third less water. Plant it with chamomile, beets, leeks, lettuce, roses, strawberries and tomatoes. Avoid planting the i’itoi near peas, beans or eggplant.

Barn Goddess tips: In case you’re struggling with how to pronounce “i’itoi” as I did, just say “e-toy”— it is also sometimes referred to as Papago onion. You will not find it in most nurseries, but you can order bulbs from Native Seeds/SEARCH.

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