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biodiversity explorer

the web of life in southern Africa

Genus: Allium (leek, onion, shallot, garlic genus)

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Monocotyledons > Order: Asparagales > Family: Amaryllidaceae

There are about 550 species worldwide, most of them occurring in the northern hemisphere. Allium dregeanum is the only species thought to be native to southern Africa although there is some doubt that it originates here. Allium triquetrum (Three-cornered leek) is naturalised in the region and an additional 12 species are cultivated, including leek, onion, shallot, chives and garlic.

Species native to southern Africa

List from Plants of Southern Africa - an Online Checklist (SANBI).

Allium dregeanum

Species naturalised in southern Africa

List from Plants of Southern Africa - an Online Checklist (SANBI).

Allium triquetrum (Three-cornered leek)

Native to the western Mediterranean. 

Other species, cultivated in southern Africa

List from Glen (2002).

Allium cepa (Onion, Spring onion, Shallot)

Domesticated as a vegetable that is eaten raw or cooked. Exact origins uncertain but thought to have been domesticated from one or more species in Central Asia. 

Allium cernuum (Lady's leek)

Indigenous from Canada through to Mexico.


Allium chinense (Chiao t'ou, Rakkyo)

Native to China.


Allium fistulosum (Welsh onion)

Cultivar species.


Allium moly (Moly)

Native to Spain and France.


Allium neapolitanum

Native to the Mediterranean.


Allium porrum (Leek)

The swollen, overlapping leaf bases of the Leak are eaten cooked as a vegetable. The Leek originates from the wild species Allium ampeloprasum which occurs from Portugal and North Africa eastwards to Turkey, Iran and about Tajikistan. 

Allium porrum (Leek)

Allium sativum (Garlic)

Garlic is grown as a vegetable and is also used for medicinal purposes because of its natural antibacterial and antifungal properties. Allium sativum is a domesticated species, thought to have originated from Allium longicuspis which is native to Central Asia. Evidence from Egyptian tombs shows that domestication of garlic goes back to at least 3200 BC. Modern garlic varieties are propagated vegetatively because seeds are infertile. 

Allium sativum (Garlic)

Allium schoenoprasum (Chives)

Native to Europe and Asia and believed to have been domesticated within the Mediterranean region. The earliest records of cultivated chives go back to only the 16th century. The leaves of chives are have a mild flavour and are cut up and added to salads, egg dishes, meat dishes, sauces and cottage cheese.


Allium subhirsutum

Native to the Mediterranean.


Allium subvillosum

Native to the Canary Islands through to the western Mediterranean.


Allium tuberosum (Chinese chives)

Native to SE Asia.



  • De Wilde-Duyfjes, B.E.E. 1976. A revision of the genus Allium L. (Liliaceae) in Africa. Belmontia 7: 75-78.

  • Glen, H.F. 2002. Cultivated Plants of Southern Africa. Jacana, Johannesburg.