Onion Grass and Non-Edible Look-Alike

General Posts, Identification, Look-Alikes, Poisonous or Toxic
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onion grass growing on a hillside near our house, note the curly ends on some stalks

onion grass growing on a hillside near our house, note the curly ends on some stalks

Onion grass is very plentiful this time of year. In fact, it’s been up since March…it is one of the first things to come up, along with garlic mustard.

Onion grass is distinct: it comes up in patches in lawns and hillsides, it’s darker green and longer than the grass (especially in early spring, when grass has barely come back yet!), has a hollow stalk and a distinct onion smell and taste.

It can be used as you would use chives, and the bulb can even be dug and used like small shallots or scallions.

However, recently we were hiking along a creek bed, and came across a patch of plants that could potentially be confused for onion grass, especially because there was onion grass growing very close by.

NOT onion grass

NOT onion grass


This plant was likely a lily, so when digging it up it had very similar looking bulbs to the onion. However, looking carefully at the greens you’ll see this plant looks more like grass: flat, uniform in height, and very straight. The onion grass, on the other hand, grows rather messily: each stalk is a different height and some curl. Also, as I said before, onion is hollow, which you can tell when you break the stalk.

NOT onion grass: flat, even, looks like grass, no onion smell

NOT onion grass: flat, even, looks like grass, no onion smell

This IS onion grass: curly hollow stalk, smells like onion

This IS onion grass: curly hollow stalk, smells like onion

The final very important distinction is that onion grass smells undeniably like onion, while the imposter does not. If one were to accidently taste a bit of the imposter (which we do not recommend) it would taste awful and bitter: a sure sign the plant is not meant to eat.

Please remember:

  • use multiple senses when identifying a plant, even one you feel very sure of.
  • if you plan to eat a plant, dry it or use it in any other way internally, and feel 100% certain it is what you are after, it is still wise to taste a tiny bit of the plant to make sure it is what you seek. If it the taste is unpleasant or not what you expect, spit it out and discard it.
  • Be absolutely certain when foraging wild edibles. There are plants which are dangerously toxic, even lethal (including death camas…which grows out west and can be confused with wild onion…see below…,poison and water hemlock and foxglove, to name a couple.)

Thanks, be safe and enjoy the spring!

onion grass I harvested today: VERY oniony smell, hollow stalks, curly uneven ends

onion grass I harvested today: VERY oniony smell, hollow stalks, curly uneven ends

~ Melissa

Here is a very important comment added by Jason. (I am adding it in the text because our comment section is still a bit hard to find/understand.):

Everyone should read this post and understand it. Before you eat anything in the wild, make sure you are educated, especially on poisonous look-alikes.

I’ll add and important tie-in. DEATH CAMAS is often confused with Wild Onion and is EXTREMELY POISONOUS
.

It is in the same Order as Lilies, and also has an oval bulb that looks like wild onion. Sometimes they’ll even grow together!

As you point out, an important distinguishing feature is the lack of an “onion-smell”.

When foraging for food, if in doubt, go without.
~ Jason

  • shirleys

    A few years ago we transplanted some lilies from several areas of our yard to one place. They came back for two years and then nothing for the next two years. Now this year we have what appears to be "onion" looking plants in that spot. They don't smell like onions, but they have really long stems, they were laying on the ground so I trimmed the stems. I am going to wait to see if flowers appear in the next month or so before I decide to pull them up and discard them.

  • Glennfamilygardens

    I found a plants that looks very much like wild ramp and has a strong onion smell and taste (it broke off when I picked it so I put it too my tongue. Tasted like onion.) but the leaves are not oval. They are flat but long and thin. I will try and attach a pic. Sorry the pic isn't great but basically, 3 long narrow flat leaves with LIGHT purple at the bottom and tastes and smells like onion. Could someone email me if they know what it is? glennfamilygardens@gmail.com

  • Joeydianag

    Hi there,

    My neighbor just dug up and gave us a bunch of wild onions. It matches your description but does not have a smell (yet?). He says he eats them often and does not get sick. Could they just not have a scent yet?
    Thank you for any help.

    From a still cold wet rainy upstate NY,
    Joey

  • Ryeanne

    i have wild onion in my yard and the smell is undeniable, i would definately NOT eat until you are %100 sure it is onion. Who knows whats up w your neighbor maybe his body has built a resistance or something

  • Joey,
    That's tricky...they should have an onion smell. Make sure they are hollow and if you want you can give it a little nibble...an inedible lily will be very bitter but the onion grass will have an onion or chive-like taste. If it is bitter spit it out.

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