The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 3, Numbers 2-3, Pages 51-52
Spring-Summer, 1978

Agricultural History: The Walla Walla Sweet Onion and its French Connection

By Joe J. Locati

Until his retirement Joe E. Locati was a District Horticultural Inspector with the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Inaccuracies sometimes surface in stories of the origin of the "French" onion, perhaps now more frequently called the "Walla Walla Sweet." I have researched it from a number of angles over a period of a good many years; and I have given an account of its introduction here and its subsequent development in a recently-published book, The Horticultural Heritage of Walla Walla County, 1818-1977. The story boils down to this:

The varietal was originally brought here as seed obtained by a Frenchman stationed with the French army on the Island of Corsica. The Frenchman, Peter Pieri, upon discharge, secured seed of an Italian type prevalent on the island, and brought it to Walla Walla around the turn of the century. So, the Italian gardeners here and their descendants have referred to it as the "French" ever since. (But it was not until 1915 that the Walla Walla Union and the Up-To-The-Times Magazine wrote about it by that name.

The Italians, who dominated gardening in Walla Walla, obtained seed from Pieri and were quick to notice the onion's unusual ability to winter over in the young plant stage (following a chance late-summer seeding. Through trial and error, in several years they worked out a more-exact timing of seeding (the last week in August and the first in September) so that bulbs matured with a minimum of seed bolters, a hard central core that makes it a cull, in spite of spanning parts of two seasons. And not only did the "French" produce prolific crops, but it matured before the middle of July - weeks ahead of the spring-seeded varieties then in use, which quickly lost favor.

Through careful seed-bulb selection, the gardeners gradually bred out a tendency to produce some red or white bulbs intermixed with the yellow ones desired. They also bred it for ideal globe shape and uniform maturity. Finally, over some four decades, they developed three generalized strains extending the shipping season for the Sweets from about June 25 with the early Arbini, starting about July 4 with the early French, and about July 12-15 with the original, or late (standard) French. The Arbini does not lend itself well to spring seeding, but the other two strains can be spring-seeded and produce onions marketable in August. By mid-August or so, true Walla Walla Sweets are practically through for the year, regardless of what the printing says on the bag.

The onion's sweetness and mildness - many other varieties are sweet but not necessarily mild - is enhanced by its naturally low volatile-sulfur content. And its succulence comes from its own nature, the rich, loam soil - and the Walla Walla growers' techniques. There is no other onion quite like it that I know of. And connoiseurs agree.

In spite of fragile shipping and holding qualities due to its tenderness, the onions have been shipped coast-to-coast, to Canada and occasionally overseas for three quarters of a century. The "jumbo" size has long been a favorite of the East Coast hamburger trade.

The name Walla Walla Sweet? Apparently that trade (and consumer) reference came from recipes for a "Walla Walla Sweet Onion Sandwich" that I remember were placed in the bottom of sacks of "jumbo" size onions by one local shippinghouse for several years in the 1950s. And the name "jes' growed."