Bulbos (Bulbs)

tulip bulbs

The Romans ate many of the root vegetables that are common table fare today: beets, parsnips, carrots, turnips, and onions. They also ate some that I will never see on an American plate…unless my host or hostess is trying to poison me.

Bulbos refers to a number of different bulbs, such as those of the tulip, narcissus, and daffodil. These plus the onion appear to be the primary items referred to by Apicius in his recipes for bulbos. CAUTION: the plants called bulbos by the Romans were mostly poisonous. DO NOT try these recipes with anything but the onion or some other root bulb that is known to be nonpoisonous and safe.

CAVEAT! The bulbs of these plants contain glycosides that are poisonous and cause anything from gastric symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea, cardiac symptoms such as arrhythmia, and nervous system symptoms of dizziness and convulsions. DO NOT TRY ANY OF THESE RECIPES!!

Many members of the lily family, including the tulip, scilla, narcissus, and daffodil, contain cardiac glycosides that can be used as heart medications at the right dosage but are toxic at higher levels. Common symptoms of milder poisoning include diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.

Other Latin authors use the term bulbos more broadly. Columella and Pliny the Elder reported that the buds or shoots of reeds were sometime called “bulbs” and sometimes “eyes.” Platina included the squill (skilla) and sea onion in the term.

Squill is often called scilla. Two plants are called by this name. Both are members of the lily family. One has small white flowers, broad leaves, and a very large bulb. It grows along the Mediterranean Coast. The other is reminiscent of a hyacinth, with strap-like leaves and clusters of small violet-blue or blue-striped flowers.

The sea onion (Drimia maritima), also called the sea squill and maritime squill, is a large plant of the asparagus family that grows in rocky coastal areas around the Mediterranean. Three-foot-long leaves in the spring are followed by a 4-to-6-foot flower stalk in the fall. Since the Romans used this plant as both a poison and a medicine, it’s unlikely that this is the edible plant referred to by Platina. The cardiac glycosides it contains can be used to treat congestive heart failure and arrhythmias, but the wrong dosage can be lethal. Its bitter taste keeps most animals, including humans, from eating it. Rats, on the other hand, like it and will eat enough for the toxic glycoside, scilliroside, to kill them. The bulbs can be cut into chips to dry and then powdered to mix with rat bait.

I DO NOT recommend trying the recipes with the kinds of bulbs the Romans used. You can’t be certain they will not be toxic in the quantities you intend to eat. The poisons in these plants are most concentrated in the bulb. While tulips, narcissus, and daffodils seldom prove fatal, their toxic glycosides can cause dizziness, abdominal pain, digestive upset, and even convulsions. Sometimes dogs dig up tulip bulbs and eat enough of them to exhibit symptoms of glycoside poisoning.

Narcissus can cause drooling, vomiting, and diarrhea at lower doses. Eating large quantities can cause convulsions, low blood pressure, tremors, and cardiac arrhythmias. The lycorine found in daffodils can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea, with the symptoms lasting about three hours.

During World War II, many Dutch were forced to eat their tulips or starve. They were advised to remove the skin (like with an onion) and to cut out the heart (the most toxic part). Then the bulbs could be boiled to destroy the glycoside by hydrolysis (decomposing the molecule by reaction with water). Most tulips are Tulipa gesneriana, which contain the poisons. A different, non-poisonous tulip species, Tulipa amblyophylla, is eaten raw by Bedouins today.

The Romans were very fond of field mushrooms, and death by mushroom poisoning was not uncommon. Perhaps the potential for glycoside poisoning didn’t faze them if the food was tasty enough. Perhaps they knew how to remove the most poisonous part of the bulb and how to cook them to deactivate the glycosides.

Apicius provides a possible explanation for eating the bulbs in “Varro si quid de bulbis dixit” (Varro Says of Bulbs). “Bulbs cooked in water are conducive to love and are therefore served at wedding feasts.” Publius Terentius Varro was a poet who was known for his love poems, satires, and an epic poem about Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul in 58 BC. The poet, Martial, also included lines in a poem about bulbs being used as an aphrodisiac.

Bulbos (Bulbs)
Serve with oil, broth, and vinegar with a little cumin sprinkled over.

Aliter (Another Way)
Soak the bulbs and parbroil (partly cook by boiling) them; then fry them in oil.
Make a dressing of thyme, fleabane, pepper, oregano, honey, vinegar, reduced wine, and date wine. If you like, add broth and some oil.
Sprinkle with pepper and serve.

Aliter (Another Way)
Cook the bulbs into a thick puree.
Season with thyme, oregano, honey, vinegar, reduced wine, date wine, broth, and some oil.

Bulbos Frictos (Fried Bulbs)
Fry and serve with oenogarum (wine sauce).

Apicius’s Recipe for Oenogarum (or Eleogarum)
In a mortar, grind pepper, alexander, coriander, and rue.
Add garum, honey, and a little oil.

Alternatively, prepare thyme, wild mint, pepper, and alexander (an herb similar to celery).
Add garum, oil, and honey.

Apicius. Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome. Edited and translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1977.

Soyer, Alexis. Food, Cookery, and Dining in Ancient Times: Alexis Soyer’s Pantropheon. Mineola NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004.

Green Deane. “Tulips.” Eat the Weeds and other things, too. 22 May 2017.  www.eattheweeds.com

Fact and Fiction by Carol Ashby