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New onion breeding project

Onions are an easy-to-breed crop that are one of the worst offenders in terms of their need for crop protection chemicals. So we are launching a new breeding program for onions -- let us know if you would like to join in! At the moment our primary goal is to collect a wide variety of heritage onion varieties so that we can field-test them for disease resistance, and cross them together so we have a good genetic base to start from.


Hi; I've just been told about this intitiative from Andrea Berry. Looks interesting and I'd like to be involved. Particularly interested in the onion breeding project. I grow a wide range of vegetable seeds in BC, and onions are one of my favourite crops to grow for seed. This year I'll be growing bulbs for Gold Coin cipollini, and producing seed on Rossa di Milano, a fantastic heirloom Italian onion with great storage ability. I've done three generations of selection on the Rossa di Milano now and have seen real improvement in the uniformity of shape for the bulbs. I haven't really been in a situation where it has had to withstand disease pressure until this past season when the seed stalks were attacked by what I believe was a fungus (a neighbour suggested it might be ). I had grown the bulbs out previously on that persons farm and they struggle with various onion diseases, so I believe the bulbs themselves were infected when I planted them out on my farm the next season for seed production. I'm still not sure that we've even identified the disease correctly, which is one of the questions I have for people. Any suggestions on resources for identifying diseases in seed crops?

I've also been growing seed for an English heirloom onion called Bedfordshire Champion. If anyone is interested in growing any of these onion varieties out I'd be happy to do some seed sharing.

A bit about me: I'm a small-scale vegetable grower in the BC interior. I primarily grow seed crops that I market through my seed company, Stellar Seeds. I also grow market vegetables and more recently am becoming a garlic grower - I currently produce about 15 varieties of garlic, several of them quite rare.

Looking forward to conversation through this site...

Patrick Steiner

Rossa di Milano onion grown and selected at Stellar Seeds Rossa di Milano onion grown and selected at Stellar Seeds

Specializing in rare and heritage vegetable varieties.

You should consider doing much more selection work on your friend's farm where they struggle with various onion diseases. Even if you never do discover the identity of these diseases, this does not matter too much. What is important is to get resistance to all of them, and you could probably achieve this in half a dozen breeding cycles. Just keep the least diseased individuals as parents for the next generation. Breeding for HR really is incredibly easy. The BC Dept of Agriculture probably has an onion expert who could identify diseases for you. Alternatively, UBC and SFU have plant pathology experts if you are ever in Vancouver. A third possibility is to photograph the symptoms and e-mail the pictures to OPBF and we will try to identify them for you.

It was good to hear from you.

Hi Patrick -- thanks for posting your experience on here! It really illustrates how simply selecting the best seed can give you amazing results in just a few generations. As Raoul said, it sounds like you have an opportunity to select for disease resistance on your friend's farm as well; you are certainly welcome to post pictures of the stalks on here if you would like help identifying the fungus.

If you have any extra seed for any of the varieties that you grow, we would really love to have some to send out to our volunteer breeders. We want to start with as wide a genetic base as possible.

On my last post I forgot to mention a resource for rare and organic seeds grown locally in BC. Check out Home of the BC Organic Seed Initiative with a comprehensive, searchable database of a lot of the rare and heritage varieties of vegetables, herbs, flowers and grains grown by BC seed producers.


Specializing in rare and heritage vegetable varieties.

Hi Patrick!

Hey I'm down here near White Rock, BC and am partnering with a farmer who is cultivating about 4.5 acres of land here. I would LOVE to help you grow out some seeds. Is it too late to start seedlings?


Zac Helmberger
White Rock Natural Farm
Surrey, BC Canada

I have had a problem with either downy mildew or botritis afecting the leaves of my onion crops. The problem starts on the overwintered onions and spreads to the spring planted ones. Its effect on the overwintered onions is not too bad they are far enough advanced for it not to affect the yeild but the spring sown onions can be a dead loss depending how early it strikes. This is particularly bad as the spring sown onions store and we depend on them for onions after Christmas. the worst affected ones however are the spring onions as the leaves are eaten and these can be quite disgusting. I have been given some perennial onions that can be used for spring onions these seem to be immune to the disease. Is it worth trying to cross the normal onions with this perennial onion? I can see your point about the futility of backcrossing to transfer the resistance, but would it not be possible to do say two generations of back crossing to increase the percentage of bulbing onions then select from this population for the resistance and bulbing plus all the other things that are lacking in present onion cultivars.

I have found it very dificult to notice any variation in resistance all cultivars seem equally susecptable and it is very difficult to select more resistant individuals within the open pollenated cultivars. Would doing crosses increase the likelyhood of finding more resistant indiviuals? The characteristic that most affects yield (the characteristic you recomend using for selection) is earlyness but this is not necessarily the one I want as the onions need to store well. I tried to use greeness of the leaves but this mostly depends on how long the disease has been in that part of the crop, some seem greener because they have not been infected for so long. Advise would be much apreciated.

I've just discovered that my little allotment plot is infected with onion white rot and have been reading everything I can about it...
"Garden Organic" in the UK report that there is a heritage onion variety "Up-To-Date" which was reported in 1940s trials as having a good level of resistance to white rot. I wonder if it would be a good starting point for anyone starting on an onion breeding project.
It was dropped from the UK National List because it was thought to be identical to Bedfordshire Champion but Garden Organic think the disease resistance makes it distinct. I think there is some seed available though the Garden Organic Seed Library (members only) but have not managed to get hold of any myself yet.
(Information obtained from "Backyard Seed Saving" by Sue Strickland.

White rot is perhaps the nastiest of diseases for alliums, and makes the land unfavorable to onion for years because of the long persistence of the sclerotia (survival structures) in the soil. One fairly recent study: "The use of arbuscular mycorrhizae to control onion white rot (Sclerotium cepivorum Berk.) under field conditions" has shown that mycorrhizae are quite effective in controlling the disease. You might want to experiment with mycorrhizal inoculants for your onion seed.

I'm a PhD student in Crop Science based at the Washington State University research and extension center in northwestern Washington State. I work with soil-borne diseases in onion and have a good skillset in pathology and agronomy. Are there any onion participatory breeders in western BC of northwestern WA that would like to meet with me or chat with me about breeding projects? I have never actually bred onions although I am quite familiar with the physiology and genetics of the species. There are several at-home and on-farm breeders working in my area on wheat, potato, tomato and kale, but I haven't heard of any allium breeders, and I would love to expand the project to interested people in Washington. Please email me at


Lucas Patzek