Ruminations on Rakkyo

gardenlad(6b KY)July 18, 2005

Rakkyo (A. chinense) is a Japanese multiplier that produces small bulbs, on average about 3/4" tall and thick. Many of the canned and bottled commercial "pearl onions" actually are Rakkyo---the Japanese export hundred of barrels of them every year.

It's a perennial allium that is normally planted in mid- to late August. It then blooms in October (pretty pink flowers which do not produce seed), winters over in the ground, then forms bulbs in the spring/summer. It's lifted in July, when the leaves start to die back, and the process starts over. Or it can be left in the ground for a short hot weather dormancy, then allowed to grow again.

I've been going through a number of "what ifs?" with it, that may or may not have ramifications for other multipliers.

For starters, I wondered what if I didn't plant until the fall, treating it like garlic. Low and behold, other than missing the floral display, it bulbed at the regular time, with normal divisions and bulb sizes. I regularly see 3-13 bulbs, with 4-5 on average.

So, I started skipping the August plantings, because I hate being out there in the heat and humidity if I can avoid it.

This year, due to the monsoons of last year, I didn't get to plant until January. If anything, the crop is better than ever. I lifted the crop today, and found each bulb had divided into from 3 to 14 new bulbs, with an average of 7 in each bunch. Overall sizes were within the normal range, but there were proportionately fewer undersized bulbs.

Unanswered question: Would this be normal? Or was there something about this years moisture/nutrient/sunlight mix that caused the better harvest. So that's another what-if that needs to be addressed.

Another one, which I'll save for next season: what-if I don't lift them in July? Each bunch will grow, I'm sure. They are, after all, perennials. But will they still form bulbs? And, if so, what will happen to the sizes? I've never left them in the ground for the summer dormancy, so haven't a clue. Someone once said that leaving them to grow a second year produces larger bulbs. It will be nice to find out.

But all this has me wondering about other bulbing multipliers. I didn't get my potato onions planted, this year, until March. When I lifted them last week they were, on average, smaller than usual. The sets were tinier, and the full bulbs nowhere's near the 2 plus inches I've come to expect.

Part of this may have been sunlight; the POs were in partial shade. Part of it may have been how late in the year they were planted, as compared to my usual practice of fall planting. I suspect it was the shade, more than anything else, but don't really know the answer. Yet.

But I'm wondering what will happen if I plant them in January? So that's another what-if. And, because multipliers are essentially perenials themselves, what would happen if they weren't lifted. What if I let them just die-back for a summer dormancy, and regrow again when they're ready? Will I wind up with an alliums perpetual motion machine? Or will they degrade to bulbless bunching onions?

Another what if: We know that the best production for shallots is to plants the smallest bulbs. And shallots are nothing more nor less than specialized multipliers. What if we do the same with Rakkyo and Potato Onions? Will the tiniest "sets" produce the largest full-sized bulbs? That's certainly what happens with sets from common onions. Or will they act like garlic, in which the larger cloves produce the larger heads? Or doesn't it matter at all?

All of this is one of the reasons I love multipliers so much. There is tons to be discovered. And there is, basically, no body of literature on the subject. Most of what we know is from sharing personal experiences here at the Alliums Forum, and at similar sites.

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mindsmile(z5 ma.)

Those questions are all other ones, which I'll save for next season: 1what-if I don't lift them in July? 2But will they still form bulbs?on and on.
thanks for the posting on this GardenLad.
Now will these type Rakkyo (A. chinense) and others perform anything like catawissa and other type walking onions?

    Bookmark   July 18, 2005 at 7:51PM
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gardenlad(6b KY)

Bill, I don't reckon they'll behave like walking onions because there are no topsets. Just thin leaves, only slightly thicker than chives for the most part.

But I wouldn't surprise me to find that they act like bunching onions. My guess is, however, that if left in the ground they'll form a great many bulbs, but much smaller than usual, because of the crowding. Let's say overall there is an average of 5 bulbs per division. That means the second growing season you get 25 bulbs in a rather tight area. Will they have room to grow? My immediate gut feeling is that they won't. However, normal division is in nests of two or three. That is, if you get five, three will be joined at the base, and the other two joined at their base. But all five grow full sized. So, just maybe, the same would happen in a second year bunch?

Somebody did suggest that if left to grow a second year you get rather large bulbs. But I don't know if that was experience, talking, or just supposition. So there's another what-if to be answered.

I've never eaten the green leaves, come to think of it. But, again guessing, I bet they'd make an intersting green onion, with the leaf and undeveloped bulb making a spicy accent to salads, stir fries, and such. Maybe even add the whole thing to soups?

You don't even have to peel them, when freshly harvested. Just scrub them, and the outer layer comes away with the dirt. But those outer layers do dry rather quickly, so I don't know how long that effect lasts.

One correction to my first post. While lifting them my impression was there were fewer undersized ones. As I started tying them to hang, I realized that the proportion was about the same as usual.

My conclusion from the three different planting times used so far is that, like with all alliums, bulbing is keyed by day-length, and has little to do with actual time in the ground.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2005 at 9:13PM
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jayreynolds(zone 6/7)

As far as topsetters go, if you leave the in-ground bulbs in place after dormancy, the results will be a colony of bunching onions too tight to develop meaningful bottom bulbs next summer.

I was pleasntly surprised to find that, grown with plenty of room and less competition, the strain of topsets I have, which resemble a catawissa, produced bulbs in the 2" range this year. Those left as clumps of 2-3 plants per 6" made only the usual 1" range bulbs.

From now on I will thin topsets to 6" spacing.

    Bookmark   July 19, 2005 at 9:26AM
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gardenlad(6b KY)

Interesting observation, Jay.

When I grew topsets I was only interested in them as green onions, and to experiment pickling the bulbils. So never paid attention to bulb size at all.

>the results will be a colony of bunching onions too tight to develop meaningful bottom bulbs next summer. This is what I fear would happen to Rakkyo left in the ground. But the only way to know for sure is to try it, which I intend doing next year.

    Bookmark   July 19, 2005 at 3:03PM
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jayreynolds(zone 6/7)

Gardenlad wrote:
"Another what if: We know that the best production for shallots is to plants the smallest bulbs."

Please tell me more, i've read the opposite several places,
but haven't followed it, with reasonable harvests.

    Bookmark   July 20, 2005 at 5:49AM
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gardenlad(6b KY)

Jay, a shallot bulb produces the same total biomass, whether the bulbs are large or small. For the sake of discussion, let's say 3 ounces.

That 3 ounces could (at least in theory) be the result of one huge bulb, several mixed large and small bulbs, or a whole nest of small bulbs.

What happens in reality is that if you plant a large bulb, it divides into many, primarily smaller bulbs. By the same token, however, a smaller bulb grows, then divides into fewer, but larger bulbs.

So it's really a matter of what you want to grow. If you want larger bulbs, you plant smaller ones. If quantity is your game, you plant larger ones.

This same syndrome works with bulbing multipliers. You plant the "sets" to produce larger bulbs, and the larger bulbs to produce sets. Ideally you have some of both, to create an alliums perpetual motion machine.

Garlic, on the other hand, works the opposite way. You plant the larger cloves to produce large heads.

Which raises another question: How does it work with bulbing leeks? Elephant garlic, I'm told, works the same as real garlic. That is, large cloves produce large heads. But what about the others, such as La Mols and Babbingtonii? Anyone know which way to go with those? With Perlswieble it doesn't seem to matter; no matter what you plant you get a mixture of large and small bulbs.

    Bookmark   July 20, 2005 at 6:59AM
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It is true, the knowledge that you can find on onions in general seems to be less than just about any other garden plant. On multipliers/shallots/bunching/dividing/scallions there seems to be almost no data at all. Sadly when I find a new one it is either at a farmers market or grocery or coop and is usually called 'shallots' or the like. As a result a lot of my collection is unnamed. When I find a gardener or farmer with an heirloom, they may have an ancient named variety or a local adaption or cross, but they don't know. All they know is that it does well and they can ignore it mostly and still get onions. I love the observation that you have made. It may be like pruning basil, the more dried out stress short of killing the onion. the more it will reproduce. I tend to plant them when I see a few of them sprout or when I think the rainy season is starting.
I have read that many regular onions will multiply if left after they bloom. I plan to test that this year.

As a further note on Rakkyo, please trade me some. I can't find a source anywere.

    Bookmark   January 17, 2006 at 5:41PM
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Sorry to have not responded sooner, Negi. I've been unable to access gardenweb for several weeks. It wouldn't even accept my registration. Final solution was to register under a different name and password. And even that was easier said than done.

Anyway, what I have available now in Rakkyo are a bunch of bulbs that are mostly dried out. They still have solid cores, however, and I'm confident they will sprout. If you want, I'd like to trade for some of your colored shallots.

If you don't feel comfortable with this, we can just wait until the new crop is ready in mid-summer.

Let me know what you think.

    Bookmark   February 9, 2006 at 10:57AM
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I am overjoyed!! I have emailed you!

    Bookmark   February 9, 2006 at 3:15PM
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Keep an eye open for a package Wednesday the 15th. Let me know how well they shipped.

    Bookmark   February 13, 2006 at 5:06PM
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