Wild garlic is one of the perennial wild plants that seems to drive new and experienced foragers mad with glee, and social media becomes awash with the obligatory wild garlic pics. It’s quite well deserved; There’s nothing quite like strolling through the woods and you get that whiff of garlic on a breeze.
Native to Europe and Asia, wild garlic likes damp soils in deciduous woods, riversides and valleys. It is said to be an indicator of ancient woodlands and can often be found with bluebells.
Wild garlic is a bulbous perennial flowering plant, related to onions and garlic.
It spends most of the year as a bulb underground in ancient woodland, only emerging to flower and leaf from March onwards. This allows it to make the most of the sunlight on the forest floor, before the canopy becomes too dense. Millions of bulbs may exist in one wood, causing the white, starry carpets and strong garlic smell we so keenly associate with this flower. Wild garlic attracts the attention of plenty of pollinating insects, including hoverflies, butterflies and longhorn beetles.
The Latin specific name ursinum translates to ‘bear’ and refers to the brown bear’s taste for the bulbs; folk tales describe the bears consuming them after awakening from hibernation. Common names for the plant in many languages also make reference to bears.
Apparently, cows love to eat them, hence the modern name given to them as wild cowleek. In Devon, dairy farmers have had their milk rejected for tainting with garlic flavour.
Ramsons probably comes from the Saxon word hramsa. There is evidence it has been used in English cuisine since Celtic Britons over 1,500 years ago.
- Bulb – Each plant has a single narrow bulb under the ground. Unlike cultivated garlic bulbs, these are especially thin and not easily broken into separate sections.
- Leaves – The leaves are green, entire, and elliptical. Often described as “strap-like” shaped. Usually up to 25cm long and 7cm wide with a petiole up to 20cm long. Depending on the growth stage and conditions there can be from one to six leaves per plant.
- Flowers – The inflorescence is an umbel of six to 20 white, star-shaped flowers. Each flower has six white tepals, about 16-20mm diameter. The stamens are shorter than the perianth.
Leaves – raw or cooked. Raw, they tend to have a strong garlic flavour that works really well in salads, pestos and other in-cooked dishes. On cooking, the garlic flavour fades considerably. The weaker flavour is desirable sometimes, but if you want to maintain the strong garlic flavour in a hot dish, I recommend stirring into the dish just before serving.
Flowers – raw or cooked. These tend to be a little stronger flavoured than the leaves and make an attractive addition to a cold dish. You can still eat the flowers as the seed pods begin to form, but the flavour gets stronger as the seeds mature.
Bulbs – raw or cooked. The strongest garlic flavour of the plant, but a little small and fiddly. If you’re going to cook with wild garlic, this is the part to use.
Wild garlic has most of the health benefits associated with cultivated garlic (Allium sativum), although it is not a strong so makes a good addition to the diet, promoting general health.[um_show_content roles=’administrator,um_sub-hh’] It is particularly effective in reducing high blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels. It is recognised as having a good effect on fermentative dyspepsia. All parts of the plant can be used, but the bulb is most active. The plant is anthelmintic, antiasthmatic, anticholesterolemic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, astringent, cholagogue, depuritive, diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, febrifuge, hypotensive, rubefacient, stimulant, stomachic, tonic and vasodilator[7, 21]. Ramsons ease stomach pain and are tonic to the digestion, so they can be used in the treatment of diarrhoea, colic, wind, indigestion and loss of appetite. The whole herb can be used in an infusion against threadworms, either ingested or given as an enema. The herb is also beneficial in the treatment of asthma, bronchitis and emphysema. The juice is used as an aid to weight loss and can also be applied externally to rheumatic and arthritic joints where its mild irritant action and stimulation to the local circulation can be of benefit.[/um_show_content]
The juice of wild garlic is used as an insect repellent, and the whole plant is said to deter moles. The juice has been used as a general household disinfectant, but I guess that’s only any good if you love the smell of garlic.
A. ursinum is the primary larval host plant for a specialised hoverfly, ramsons hoverfly (Portevinia maculata).
There have been cases of poisoning of some mammals through eating very large quantities. Dogs seem to be affected particularly.
The leaves are usually coming up from late January/February and can be harvested straight away. As with all foraging, please be careful not to over-pick. Wild garlic seems to cause people to go a bit mad and pick all that they can see.
Flowering usually starts in February/March.
Bulbs are best gathered during the plants’ dormant time, from early summer to winter.
The biggest issue with dangerous lookalikes when foraging wild garlic, as with other plants, is accidentally grabbing other plants as you try to grab big fistfuls of garlic leaves. There is nothing else that looks like wild garlic and smells of garlic.
Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis), autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale), Arum maculatum, and helebore (Veratrum album), all have similar looking leaves to one degree or another, but none have the distinct garlic smell when you crush their leaves.
Top tip: Make sure you hands don’t smell of garlic before checking another plant!
Mythology and Symbolism
In Ireland, the bulbs of wild garlic were sown into the thatch of cottages for good luck and to keep fairies out.
Wild garlic isn’t welcome everywhere, and in several places in the UK you can hear stories of kids being paid to stamp on or pull up plants to stop cows from eating it. It was believed that the garlic flavour would ruin the milk and butter. That sounds to me like a bit of marketing is needed to sell the naturally flavoured wild garlic butter and cheese!
In ancient Greece, Dioscorides believed that was an effective cure for snake bites.
- Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allium_ursinum
- PFAF – https://pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Allium+ursinum
- Launert. E. Edible and Medicinal Plants. Hamlyn 1981 ISBN 0-600-37216-2
- Phillips. R. & Foy. N. Herbs Pan Books Ltd. London. 1990 ISBN 0-330-30725-8
- Chiej. R. Encyclopaedia of Medicinal Plants. MacDonald 1984 ISBN 0-356-10541-5
- Lust. J. The Herb Book. Bantam books 1983 ISBN 0-553-23827-2