"What a strange thing. It's an onion!" I heard my friend Victor call out in Spanish, as we walked along the beach.
On a late December afternoon we were walking along the Yucatan's northern fringe at water's edge, kicking at chunks of coral and scanning the tide line for something interesting, when suddenly we stumbled upon this object.
As soon as I'd processed the day's "language learning moment," realizing that my friend was not talking about a certain strong-tasting edible root, but rather in general about plant bulbs (of which onions are just one example), I bent over to take a look.
Although it did resemble an edible onion in color and texture, obviously this bulb was something different. It still had the remains of green leaves at its top, and some threads of root remained attached to the base. As we walked further, we found quantities of these uprooted plants, strewn among shells and seaweed clumps along the shore.
Victor commented that they looked a lot like the wild lilies that grow near the coast. He in the past had pointed out these plants growing here and there near beach access roads and in dunes along the Yucatan coast, although I've never seen them in flower.
But what we kept wondering was, "how did these bulbs get here?" It was pretty obvious that they'd floated awhile and then washed up on this spot. Did someone dump them? Why did they dig them up in the first place?
As we speculated, we decided to collect a few, so as we beach combed we selected those in better condition and piled them where they would be visible and easily found as we returned to the car. Some were rotted and badly damaged, but we gathered about a dozen good ones for a little experiment.
The bulbs were planted in my garden a few days later, and within two weeks had begun to sprout new leaves. They did greatly resemble the wild lily plants commonly seen along beach areas around here.
As they grew, what was surprising to me was the size of these plants. After about six months, the leaves have reached a length of more than a meter (40 inches). Then they began to flower in late June, exactly six months after being put into good soil. The blossoms confirmed that these are the local plants we suspected they were.
As for the "Beach Onions" mystery, I believe that coastal erosion is the reason that these bulbs are washing up on the shore. It seems to be an indigenous plant, common along the coasts, and this area of the Yucatán coast north of Mérida has some serious problems with erosion of beaches. I am guessing as beaches recede and dunes wash out, that some of these plants might manage to survive by floating to new habitat. However I imagine, from seeing the many damaged and rotted bulbs along the beach that day, and from the slim chance that a bulb would be tossed high enough up a beach to root and thrive, that the majority do not survive.
If my readers have other theories or information, or can help with identifying this plant, I'd appreciate comments.