Onion snow

UPDATE: Apparently, the term “onion snow” isn’t as widely known as I’d thought. Here in Central Pennsylvania, it’s a common expression for an early spring snow that comes right when the onions are sprouting in the garden. The dark green tops of wild onions are also highly visible around field edges at this time (and in centuries past, were mixed with other early greens for a welcome antidote against scurvy).

We also have a term for the occasional, heavy, wet snowfall of mid-April: that’s a sapling-bender.

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An onion snow goes well with tea, I’m told.
But I had it with my coffee; it was all gone by 3:00.

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It melted in the mouths of daffodils, & didn’t even turn their lips blue.

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Snow & a cold wind bring out the blush on the ridgeside.

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Pussy willow & red maple blossoms wear wool caps for a reason, it seems.

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“Abstract expressionism” is such a stupid expression, isn’t it? I mean, if you can picture it, it obviously isn’t abstract.

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I suppose it might be possible to see the world without imposing representations on it. But why would you want to?

Phoebe! says the phoebe. It’s hard to argue with that.

57 Replies to “Onion snow”

  1. Hi Jill – Thanks for stopping by! Make yourself at home.

    Patry – I’m thinking maybe I should update the post with a brief definition of “onion snow” at the outset. (I did take a photo of the chives in my garden, but it wasn’t as good as the six I posted here.)

    Thanks to both of you for your kind words about the site. I don’t aim for a lot of readers, just a few thoughtful ones; having the good opinion of writers I respect is worth a lot to me.

  2. Onion Snow is a perfect example of a local idiom that could be obliterated under the snow of a hegemonic language, re Dale’s recent post, and the lengthy discussion at Beth’s site. Besides its rather vivid image, which stands all on its own, perhaps some photos, a poem, this year or some other year, keeping it in the language, alive, a marker of Pennsylvania, of those particular fields, of that particular moment between Winter and Spring.

    Your new site is lovely. About a year ago I struggled with whether to reopen my Blogger site or start a new one with WordPress, and still wonder about that decision. It’ll be good to hear about your experiences with it.

    Though I, too, find the font a little small, much smaller than the font I have set in my preferences tab in Firefox.

    Your music post brought back a flood of memories, too.

  3. …of course i know what onion snow means! the colorado version, is a bit over the top though. a few springs ago, our onion snow wound up 3 feet deep!

  4. Very nice. And I’d not heard of onion snow either. We apparently had something of the sort here yesterday. I think they call it ‘WTF? Snow?’ in the Boston area.

  5. Brenda – This is a pretty conservative area, language-wise; what will kill idioms like that is a new generation that doesn’t know from gardening.

    I’m glad you like the look of it. I find it a simple matter to change text size on webpages, but unfortunately a lot of people don’t seem to have ever exlored the drop-down menus at the top of their screen. Some bloggers recognize that, and have things in the sidebar that one can click on to change the text size. I’m sure I could get that as a plug-in, though I’m loathe to clutter up the page.

    Anne – O.K., so I guess we know they say that as far east as Lancaster County!

    Leslee – Thanks. I’ll bet the Car Talk guys have lots of colorful names for it…

  6. I put your fifth picture on the big screen today and asked the class what they thought it was. (Don’t ask why. It gets involved.) Most thought it was a view through a microscope.

  7. You’ve already entered the idiom into the slipstream of language as it flows aroung the blogosphere…

    Another site I frequent uses WordPress with the same small font- recently I set our font size to 18 in preferences because the computer is perched on top of a small filing cabinet and the keyboard is on a board on an open drawer, never mind, and it’s rather far away… the font here seems to be about 8-10pt, tiny, and I wonder if WordPress over-rides whatever you’ve got set on your computer… I’ll try opening in Safari & IE & see… I don’t mind using the text enlarger from the drop down menu at all, just curious about this feature, that’s all.

    I LOVE that one can subscribe to your comments… that’s where the discussion takes place and is submerged beneath the surface. More reading, but well worth it. A great option to have added to your feeds.

  8. Brenda, I’m afraid I don’t quite understand your question about the font size. I haven’t done anything, other than reset the text size on my own screen. I could go into the template and change it to a larger size, but I haven’t made up my mind to do that yet.

    I LOVE that one can subscribe to your comments…
    O.K., but you’re going to get a lot of pingbacks from me to myself over the next week or so as I edit internal links in some old posts. Sorry for the nuisance.

  9. I grew up with the term Onion Snow all of my life. I asked SWMBO last night when she first heard of an Onion Snow and she said the same thing, all of her life. She grew up in central NY State and then moved to VT when she was about 12. I’d like to know were the term originated. My guess is that it has a Native American origin.

  10. Thanks, Keith. I’m surprised my parents had never heard it before moving here, then, since all of my grandparents grew up in Eastern PA.

  11. Peter – I’m sorry, I overlooked your comment! That’s kind of surprising that no one guessed correctly. Is it because they don’t go outside much, I wonder?

  12. I don’t think they go out of their subdivisions much except in a car, even to the nearby bike path where they might see some snow on longer grass.

  13. Onion snow comes far deeper from history than pennsylvania. Most likely Germany or Bavaria as it once was. France also has the legend. It was refered to as the Three Ice Men. The legend originated around three Catholic Saints. Research it if you like.

    Anther neat local legend, Kunigund day. March 3rd when the frost will go no deeper. And instead will turn around and start coming out of the ground. My grandfather said you don’t plant onions until after Kunigund day.

  14. As another central Pa. blogger I was surprised to find too, that the term “onion snow” wasn’t more commonly known. The only thing I’m still not clear on is if the snow has to lay on the ground for it to count as an onion snow. Or, can a snow squall count as an onion snow? I can’t get a good answer to this one.

    Great photos!

    Carolyn H.

  15. I think it does have to stay on the ground for at least a few hours, yeah. But this year we’ve had snow on the ground every morning for four days, now, and this is so unusual for April, I’m wondering if the term “onion snow” really fits any more. Because I think the sense of it being a one-day affair is also implicit in the term. That is to say, “onion snow” denotes a regular, familiar phenomenon, whereas this weather pattern is beginning to seem very irregular indeed.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  16. Links are welcome anytime; thanks. This was actually two springs ago. (I’m wincing at my photos – I really liked color saturation back then!) But we do have snow on the ground right now, and if these past few years are any guide, we can probably expect another wet snowfall or two before winter abandons us altogether.

  17. YAHOO!!
    Finally! Everyone thought I was crazy when I referred to the onion snow. I live in Seattle now, but was raised in Syracuse, New York and nobody there knew what I was talking about.
    So, in checking the internet, I find your site and lo! the phrase is from Pennsylvania…Mystery solved. I spent four years in Williamsport going to Lycoming College. After 50 years, I now have a real reference.
    Thanks much.

  18. I was born in Pa and always heard the expression onion snow. Talked to my mom yesterday and she said that they have not had there onion snow yet. I thought to myself I need to google that and find out why people say that. (I did’t realize that was a Pa thing. :o) So now I know! Very cool I think. I do remember picking wild onions out in our field in the spring time too.

  19. I grew up in Pennsylvania and I always expect the onion snow and am not surprised at all when it happens. I get cries of disbelief from my husband from Maine and people I live with in Massachusetts. Thank you for this article so I can now “prove” my sanity.

    1. Glad I could help! But if you want to cite a more authoritative source, check out the American Heritage Dictionary definition, reproduced online here:

      n. Chiefly Pennsylvania
      A light snow in late spring, after onions have been planted.

  20. We had an “onion snow” today and some knew what it was and others not from Pennsylvania didn’t. The version I grew up with was to plant your peas and onions on St. Patrick’s Day and after that any snow is an “onion snow”.

  21. Hurray!! I knew those two expressions existed (onion snow and sapling bender) and I use them all the time when people wonder out loud if the snow is gone for the season. I tell them we still have to have our onion snow and sapling bender, and they look at me as if I were crazy!

  22. Thanks for the info…my grandma said we just got an onion snow and being from Central PA, I’ve never heard of it ’til now!

    1. See, that’s why you have to listen to the old folks and keep these kinds of expressions alive! Otherwise, Central PA (and upstate NY) will become just like everywhere else.

  23. The term onion snow brings back loving memories of being up in the Blue Hills of PA with my mom and her family … all gone now. When we later lived in NY and people would complain about early spring snow, my mom was quick to point out the beauty of it …

  24. Many years ago a professor at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster, PA, reported that folks in West Virginia listed names for several additional springtime snowfalls. Sadly, I didn’t jot down those names but I seem to recall “blueberry snow” and “pea snow”.

    1. Interesting. “Pea snow” I can see for those mid-April snows. Blueberries don’t flower till May here most years, but I suppose at some of those high-elevation WV sites, snow in blueberry-blossom time might be regular enough to warrant a name. Though I should think that would severely impact that summer’s blueberry crop.

    2. I was always told of three snows of spring by my mom and grandparents, onion snow, crocus snow and robin snow. I don’t know which is the first or the last. I do know we have onion, crocus and robins now so maybe spring is here. Hope so for us in northern Pa.

      1. You folks are getting snow again? Geez. Just rain down here in the Tyrone area. Our first daffodials are out this morning, too, despite the cold — guess they just couldn’t wait any longer.

  25. In Lewisberry and today better be our last onion snow!! :) I am ready for spring, I am ready to start sowing my garden and seeing what wonderful plants survive and thrive!! Your pictures really are quite spectacular. I hope to find more time to dabble in that pastime.

    1. Hi Lisa, thanks for the kind words about my photos (which now seem way too over-saturated, but all I had at the time was a 1-megapixel camera, so I was forced to play with processing to make the photos look at all interesting). Yeah, we have an inch on the ground here too, and more in the forecast… and like you, I’m quite ready for spring!

  26. My family is from Western PA. and everyone had a garden. I’ve always heard the term “onion snow” most of my life.
    And on Groundhog Day, I say “It doesn’t matter whether the groundhog sees his shadow or not. It’s the beginning on February, in PA we have 6 more weeks of winter.”

  27. We had our onion snow today in Pittsburgh.

    My family has always used the term “onion snow”. In fact, we know that winter is not over until we have a light snow in April. My great-grandparents came from Ireland and Germany. They first lived in Central PA, so maybe that is why I know of the expression. My great-grandfather was a tree surgeon and actually worked for the Frick’s in Pittsburgh. So I have grown up in a gardening family. Never heard of “sapling bender” – I will use it now though. The simple things in life are the best.

    I found interesting the comment regarding frost changing directions on March 3 – never thought of that way, but it is true.

    Another thing that seems to happen every year is that we will be cutting the grass by April 15th. Dont know what that’s called…

    I can tell you that I can’t wait to plant – onion snow or no onion snow!

    1. I like your attitude! Thanks for these anecdotes about your family — this has turned into one of those blog posts where the comments are 100 times more interesting than the original post.

  28. I agree that all of the posts have been really interesting.

    I have been out in my gardens for the last week cleaning it up and every single plant was beautifully budding. It is an amazing experience to feel like the garden is a part of me. I love to see the plants wake up and start to grow again. Especially love long springs – more time to savor it. I can just get lost in puttzing around the yard – probably my favorite thing to do in life!

    My sister is the cook of the family and I am the gardener. The funny thing is that I cook like I garden…Put something in the oven and think that I should forget about it for awhile and that it has to be in there a long time before it is done (like planting something and checking back in a week to see how it is doing). My kids tell me that I should take things away from the heat before I think they are ready.

    Off the subject of onion snow…sorry…

    I love your blog/website – it was very nice to read how you quit smoking – I am trying to do it now. If I wanted to write to you about that, should I post it here?

    1. Ah, good luck! You could leave comments in the comment thread for that post, sure, or email me if you like (see Contact page), though I’m afraid I don’t have much more advice beyond what you’ve already read. Thanks for checking out the site. One always hopes that the few, uber-popular posts will lure some folks to explore further (though if all they do is satisfy people’s curiosity about one thing, that’s cool, too).

      I used to love vegetable gardening when I was a kid, but we had dogs then and they helped keep the animals away, though we had to put up fences, too. After the last of the dogs died, the deer made it almost impossible — and in any case it’s no fun having to garden inside a stockade. Fortunately, about that time the Amish moved into the adjacent valley and we’ve had no shortage of good, affordable produce ever since.

      I like long springs too. What would be nice right now, though, would be a week or two of warm weather to bring out the early wildflowers and the shadbush. Then it could get cold again and hold them. That’s the ideal for me.

  29. I was looking for information on when the 3 snows come when I found your blog. So we all know that the onion snow is the last snow. I saw the sappling bender mentioned but not much info on when it comes. But I have not seen anything on the crack creeper snow. I was told that they all come after a certain moon. Does anyone know what moon they are to come after and does the crack creeper or the sapling bender come first?

  30. I grew up in Central Pa. Three snows around Springtime: Onion Snow (big snowflakes that look like onion peels, crack creeper where the snow is very fine and can filter through the cracks in a barn, and sapling bender which is a wet heavy snow that bends the tender branches of a tree. All three occur around the onset of Spring. However, I’m not sure how they determine when to plant.

    1. My 87 year old father also talks of a crackcreeper snow. It’s called that because the wind would blow thw snow in through the cracks in the older houses (log or cabin like). He says we haven’t had it yet in Mifflin County, PA.

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