It has been 118 years since our land was home to the Southport globe onion. A devastating blight of cutworms and fungus in 1894 effectively ended the crop that had been the anchor of Southport's economy since Colonial times.
We had no knowledge of this when we bought the old Hull Sherwood farmhouse in 1974, but conversations with our elderly neighbor, a Sherwood family member, filled us in on the details.
It happened almost overnight: Onions turned black in the fields, rotted, and the onion industry died with them. The Sherwood family successfully grew strawberries on the land for many years after that, but eventually the farmland was subdivided, and all but the farmhouse and 1.7 acres were sold off for residential development. The old buildings on the harbor that housed the onion shipping business are now part of the local yacht club.
Southport globe onions were famed for their ability to keep for long periods in winter storage. They were shipped by the hundreds of tons to the Union Army during the Civil War, as the onion's vitamin C content helped prevent scurvy, a fact known to medicine since Egyptian times. In the 19th Century, Connecticut onion farmers competed with Long Island farmers to get the first crops into New York City, packing them in barrels and transporting them by ship.
A FINE LOCATION
We have planted a successful vegetable garden since we've owned the Sherwood property. Those old colonists chose their farmland well. Our land sits on the south side of a hill facing on a glacial drumlin facing Long Island Sound. As a result, we enjoy good drainage, deep topsoil and a gentler climate than further inland. Our elderly neighbor was surprised when she learned we had successfully planted onions, but the soil conditions here are perfect for them and we had no evidence of the earlier plague that killed off the Southport globe. The only Southport globes I saw in seed catalogues were a type of bunching onions, more like green onions, a different type of than the traditional globe.
REDS AND WHITES
I had always planted disease-resistant onion hybrids, but when a friend surprised me with a packet of Southport globe onion seeds she found in an organic seed exchange, I couldn't wait to give them a try. I planted both white globe and red globe seeds in early February under grow lights in the cellar. Both germinated well, and by early April, the seedlings were large enough to set out into rows in the garden.
I kept them well weeded, watered and mulched (onions hate competition), and they thrived. I inspected them every day for signs of disease, but by Aug. 1, the white globe onion tops had dried and fallen over, an indication that they were still healthy and ready to harvest.
As I pulled them and washed off the soil, I noticed a few had deep red blush stains. Reading up on this, I learned that onions with this blush were a much sought after anomaly by the young Southport onion farmers in the 19th Century. They would save these onions and present them in bunches of five as a"Farmer's Valentine" to their sweethearts.
Our red globes took longer to ripen and were larger, but both yielded handsome, sizeable onions with a rich flavor.
I plan to change the location of the onions next year in hopes of avoiding diseases. And so, the Southport globe has returned to our land. I think the Sherwood family would be pleased.