Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph Blog The Protected Yorktown Onion

Virginia Tourism and the Protected Yorktown Onion

Posted on February 4, 2012 By

I drove to Yorktown, Virginia early one morning because the fields of “Yorktown Onions” were reported to be in bloom. I wanted to see them again and also spend some time photographing them.

This old world plant is not native to the United States. Legend has it that it made its way to the New World during the Revolutionary War mixed in with crop seeds and fodder.

[Think Battle of Yorktown]

Take a look


In short order this wild plant became firmly established near Yorktown where its growth was curiously confined to a small area on the outskirts of that seriously small town.

Don’t blink or you might miss them both!

This species is found nowhere else in America so consequently it is a protected species, with warning signs to that effect. But for the record: they are protected from humans but apparently not from the encroaching blades of park service mowers that maintain these fields year-round.

In fact, I remember when the onions were majestic six-foot stalks waving in the wind, topped by bold five-inch wide purple buds. The mowing over time has reduced the output of this plant so that it is now more common for them to grow to 3-to-4 feet in height with buds now less than half their original size.

At any rate, within a week the famous blooms are gone, not to surface again until it is time for next year’s crop to shine.

Those Testy tourists

During that annual and very brief week of ritual blossoms it is not uncommon to see cars stop to let a passenger out for a brisk ‘snatch’ of onions before anyone sees or catches them. Occasionally I get a chance to talk with some of these perennial thieves but mostly they gun the engine and are long gone before I can possibly reach them.

And I don’t even wear a Park Service uniform!

My intention is not to admonish them so much as I’d like to help educate them about the growing fragility of this plant that everyone else enjoys as much as they do. Alas, conservation information in this case all too often falls on deaf ears.

It is just that when there are kids in those cars, I am concerned about the behavior that is being modeled to them by family members.

YtOnion01*Yorktown Onion Allium ampeloprasum

These onions are not that easy to photograph!

Just from an historic perspective Yorktown Onions in bloom are very cool to see, which is why so many people make the annual trek to Yorktown to enjoy them.

For photographers like me, however, they are neigh impossible to capture in a way that presents them at their collective best. I have tried everything over the years including flying over them in  Mash-like two-seater helicopters but:

  • there is always a breeze blowing chaotically through them, and
  • they are tall and spindly and colorful without being particularly interesting unless you can zoom in on the intricacies of the plants themselves, and
  • they like to pop up individually versus collectively


People often stop to take a few wide-angle shots from their car and then move on, typically with a tiny little point and shoot.

I can tell you, however, that all they find when they look at their images later are lots and lots of teeny tiny blurry purple dots.

I prefer to get out in the middle of the onions early in the morning, careful to tread lightly for fear of stepping on one of them or on a snake that may be curled up among them. Butterflies love these buds as much as I do but so do bees of all shapes and sizes, and very often I find flattened-down patches in the grasses where several deer have spent the previous night.


That said, it is also not uncommon to find moi lying on my back or gingerly dragging myself around by my elbows among the grasses looking for that perfect vantage point. Try explaining that to a curious national park ranger who happens to spot my telephoto lens poking through the onions at him.

I must admit that the onions very often get the best of me even though my memory cards are always bulging with purple pixels at the end of the annual shooting day.

The overall results of my 20-year face-off with the Onions:
Onions= 95%   Moi= 5%

I just love photographing those historic little gangly wiggly purple buggers anyway! What can I say?



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