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Seeming at first sight out of place among the lilies of the field, yet Garlic, the Leek, and the Onion are true members of that noble order, and may be correctly classified together with the favoured tribe, "Clothed more grandly than Solomon in all his glory."
They possess alike the same properties and characteristics, though in varying degrees, and they severally belong to the genus Allium, each containing "allyl," which is a radical rich in sulphur.
The homely Onion may be taken first as the best illustration of the family. This is named technically Allium cepa, from cep, a head (of bunched florets which it bears). Lucilius called it Flebile coepe, because the pungency of its odour will provoke a flow of tears from the eyes. As Shakespeare says, in Taming of the Shrew:—
"Mine eyes smell onions;
By the Greeks this bulb was called Krommuon, "apo tau Meuein tas koras," because of shutting the eyes when eating it. In Latin its name unio, signified a single root without offsets.
Raw Onions contain an acrid volatile oil, sulphur, phosphorus, alkaline earthy salts, phosphoric and acetic acids, with phosphate and citrate of lime, starch, free uncrystallized sugar, and lignine. The fresh juice is colourless, but by exposure to the air becomes red. A syrup made from the juice with honey is an excellent medicine for old phlegmatic persons in cold weather, when their lungs are stuffed, and the breathing is hindered.
Raw Onions increase the flow of urine, and promote perspiration, insomuch, that a diet of them, with bread, has many a time cured dropsy coming on through a chill at first, or from exposure to cold. They contain the volatile principle, "sulphide of allyl," which is acrid and stimulating. If taken in small quantities, Onions quicken the circulation, and assist digestion; but when eaten more prodigally they disagree.
In making curative Simples, the Onion (and Garlic) should not be boiled, else the volatile essential oil, on which its virtues chiefly depend, will escape during the process.
The principal internal effects of the Onion, the Leek, and Garlic, are stimulation and warmth, so that they are of more salutary use when the subject is of a cold temperament, and when the vital powers are feeble, than when the body is feverish, and the constitution ardently excitable. "They be naught," says Gerard, "for those that be cholericke; but good for such as are replete with raw and phlegmatick humors." Vous tous qui etes gros, et gras, et lymphatiques, avec l'estomac paresseux, mangez l'oignon cru; c'est pour vous que le bon Dieu l'a fait.
Onions, when eaten at night by those who are not feverish, will promote sleep, and induce perspiration. The late Frank Buckland confirmed this statement. He said, "I am sure the essential oil of Onions has soporific powers. In my own case it never fails. If I am much pressed with work, and feel that I am not disposed to sleep, I eat two or three small Onions, and the effect is magical." The Onion has a very sensitive organism, and absorbs all morbid matter that comes in its way. During our last epidemic of cholera it puzzled the sanitary inspectors of a northern town why the tenants of one cottage in an infected row were not touched by the plague. At last some one noticed a net of onions hanging in the fortunate house, and on examination all these proved to have become diseased. But whilst welcoming this protective quality, the danger must be remembered of eating an onion which shows signs of decay, for it cannot be told what may have caused this distemper.
When sliced, and applied externally, the raw Onion serves by its pungent and essential oil to quicken the circulation, and to redden the skin of the particular surface treated in this way; very usefully so in the case of an unbroken chilblain, or to counteract neuralgic pain; but in its crude state the bulb is not emollient or demulcent. If employed as a poultice for ear-ache, or broken chilblains, the Onion should be roasted, so as to modify its acrid oil. When there is a constant arid painful discharge of fetid matter from the ear, or where an abscess is threatened, with pain, heat, and swelling, a hot poultice of roasted Onions will be found very useful, and will mitigate the pain. The juice of a sliced raw Onion is alkaline, and will quickly relieve the acid venom of a sting from a wasp, or bee, if applied immediately to the part.
A tincture is made from large, red, strong Onions for medicinal purposes. As a warming expectorant in chronic bronchitis, or asthma, or for a cold which is not of a feverish character, from half to one teaspoonful of this tincture may be given with benefit three or four times in the day in a wineglassful of hot water, or hot milk. Likewise, a jorum (i.e., an earthen bowl) of hot Onion broth taken at bedtime, serves admirably to soothe the air passages, and to promote perspiration; after the first feverish stage of catarrh or influenza has passed by. To make this, peel a large Spanish Onion, and divide it into four parts; then put them into a saucepan, with half a saltspoonful of salt, and two ounces of butter, and a pint of cold water; let them simmer gently until quite tender; next pour all into a bowl which has been made hot, dredging a little pepper over; and let the porridge be eaten as hot as it can be taken.
The allyl and sulphur in the bulbs, together with their mucilaginous parts, relieve the sore mucous membranes, and quicken perspiration, whilst other medicinal virtues are exercised at the same time on the animal economy.
By eating a few raw parsley sprigs immediately afterwards, the strong smell which onions communicates to the breath may be removed and dispelled. Lord Bacon averred "the rose will be sweeter if planted in a bed of onions." So nutritious does the Highlander find this vegetable, that, if having a few raw bulbs in his pocket, with oat-cake, or a crust of bread, he can travel for two or three days together without any other food. Dean Swift said:—
"This is every cook's opinion,
Provings have been made by medical experts of the ordinary red Onion in order to ascertain what its toxical effects are when pushed to an excessive degree, and it has been found that Onions, Leeks, or Garlic, when taken immoderately, induce melancholy and depression, with severe catarrh. They dispose to sopor, lethargy, and even insanity. The immediate symptoms are extreme watering of the eyes after frequent sneezing, confusion of the head, and heavy defluxion from the nose, with pains in the throat extending to the ears; in a word, all the accompaniments of a bad cold, sneezings, lacrymation, pains in the forehead, and a hoarse, hacking cough. These being the effects of taking Onions in a harmful quantity, it is easy to understand that when the like morbid symptoms have arisen spontaneously from other causes, as from a sharp catarrh of the head and chest, then modified forms of the Onion are calculated to counteract them on the law of similars, so that a cure is promptly produced. On which principle the Onion porridge is a scientific remedy, as food, and as Physic, during the first progress of a catarrhal attack, and pari passu the medicinal tincture of the red Onion may be likewise curatively given.
Spanish Onions, which are imported into this country in the winter, are sweet and mucilaginous. A peasant in Spain will munch an onion just as an English labourer eats an apple.
At the present day Egyptians take onions, roasted, and each cut into four pieces, with small bits of baked meat, and slices of an acid apple, which the Turks call kebobs. With this sweet and savoury dish they are so delighted, that they trust to enjoy it in paradise. The Israelites were willing to return to slavery and brick-making for their love of the Onion; and we read that Hecamedes presented some of the bulbs to Patrochus, in Homer, as a regala. These are supplied liberally to the antelopes and giraffes in our Zoological Gardens, which animals dote on the Onion.
A clever paraprase of the word Onion may be read in the lines:—
"Charge! Stanley, charge! On! Stanley, on!
For chilblains apply onions with salt pounded together, and for inflamed or protruding piles, raw Onion pulp, made by bruising the bulb, if kept bound to the parts by a compress, and renewed as needed, will afford certain relief.