General: perennial, onion-smelling, the stem 10-50 cm tall, round or flattened, curved down near the top, sometimes 2 or more successively produced from a single bulb. Bulbs 1-2 cm thick, usually in clusters, with membranous outer layers with parallel fibers.
Leaves: basal, several per bulb, plane or concave-convex in cross section, 1-6 mm broad, shorter than the flower stem, entire or small-toothed on the edges, green during flowering, persistent at maturity.
Flowers: several in a nodding umbel, the surrounding, membranous bract soon dropped. Stalks slender, 2-3 times the flower length, in fruit becoming stouter, elongating, and bending upward. Tepals 4-6 mm long, elliptic-ovate, blunt, entire or nearly so, pink or white, withering in fruit, the midribs not thickened. Stamens projecting, anthers oblong. Ovary crested with 6 distinct, flattened processes, the style thread-like, projecting, stigma round, entire.
Fruits: capsules, 3-lobed, with 6 crests at tip, about 4 mm long. Seeds dull black, with honey-comb pattern.
Widely distributed in moist to dry, open sites, plains to montane zone, in w., c. and s.e. parts of MT. Also from B.C. to WA, OR, ID, and to GA and Mexico.
Nodding onion is edible, and its bulbs were widely eaten by native peoples and European settlers, either raw, cooked or dried for winter. Being strongly flavored, it is mainly used as a flavoring. Cooking removes the strong smell and flavor, converting the sugar inulin to the more digestible fructose, and the bulbs become very sweet. The leaves are edible, raw or cooked. They have a delicious, strong-onion flavor, and are said to be very nice in salads. The flowers can be eaten raw or cooked. They have a delicious strong onion flavor, somewhat stronger than the leaves especially if the seeds are starting to set. They make a very decorative and tasty addition to the salad bowl.
The whole plant has mild medicinal activity similar to the action of garlic (Allium sativum). It is used specifically as a poultice on the chest for the treatment of respiratory ailments and the juice has been used in the treatment of kidney stones. The juice of the plant is used in treating colds, croup, sore throats etc. A poultice of the plant is applied externally to various infections such as sore throats, sores, swellings, chest and pleurisy pains.
The juice of the plant is used as a moth repellent. The whole plant is said to repel insects and moles. The juice can be applied to exposed skin in order to repel biting insects.