Wild Garlic or Ramsons Identification
Updated: Jul 15
Well what do you say about this wild herb... Except, I love it! What a fantastic ingredient to use, such a wonderful flavour and ever so versatile!
Wild Garlic sometimes known by another name - Ramsons - provides the distinctive and pungent garlicky smell that permeates woodland in spring. Its latin name Allium Ursinum is known by even more names including; Bears Leek or Garlic, Broad Leaved Garlic, Wood Garlic and probably many more. The plant is a relative of the Wild Chive and part of the onion family, it is also very common across Europe and some parts of Asia.
Wild Garlic Identification
What does Wild Garlic look like? Well, the Wild Garlic plant is a medium-sized bulbous perennial which can grow up to half a metre in height. It has a distinctive and pungent garlicky smell that perfumes woodland in spring. The leaves are long, pointed and oval in shape with untoothed edges. The leaves grow from the plant base, the bulb and has a strong garlic scent. The flowers are small, white, with six petals and can be found on the end of a thin stalk.
Tip: The simplest tip to help identify wild garlic is the smell. The wild garlic smell will be intense and smell of garlic, the leaves of poisonous look alikes like lily-of-the-valley do not smell of garlic at all. The same tip applies to the flowers, lily-of-the-valley smells sweet and well.. flowery. While those of the wild garlic smell like garlic. Smell as you forage to help identify wild garlic, but if you are on a woodland walk it can also help you to find a hidden patch.
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What does Wild Garlic Look like?
To provide a full breakdown of this plant, here's a breakdown of each element of the Wild Garlic plant and what it will look like.
Leaves: The leaves are long, pointed and oval in shape with untoothed edges. They grow from the plant base and the bulb and have a strong garlic scent.
Flowers: Wild Garlic flowers are small, white, with six petals on a thin stalk. 20 to 30 flowers form each rounded flower cluster which is held high on a single, leafless stalk.
Seeds: Wild Garlic reproduces through bulbs and very occasionally seeds. The seeds are 2–3mm long, flattish on one side and black and are dispersed when the parts of the plant above ground die down.
Where can you find Wild Garlic?
Wild Garlic loves to keep its feet wet. Areas of the UK that have prolonged dry periods tend to have less Wild Garlic in their area. It will be found in a variety of habitats ranging from the woodland floor to bordering freshwater rivers and streams. I live in the South East, so it has been relatively difficult (locally) to find patches of this wonderful wild food to harvest. Mostly, you'll find Wild Garlic in deciduous woodland. You can also spot it in scrub and hedgerows poking out from under a hawthorn or sloe.
Harvesting Wild Garlic
Harvest the Wild Garlic by using a sharp knife or scissors to cut it close to the ground, I like to use a curved mushroom knife, its perfect for this job. It is also important to remember the one third rule when you harvest, meaning that you should always leave at least two thirds of any Wild Garlic crop behind to make sure there will be enough left for the coming seasons. You will want to keep your Wild Garlic spot thriving for years to come so it is important that you do not overpick and let it seed – although you'll probably find it is nearly impossible to pick one third, once you find a good patch. A final note on harvesting, when you are harvesting this delicious plant, make sure that the plants and water that it so much loves, is clean!
Wild Garlic Look alikes
Although easy to identify the Wild Garlic does have a lookalikes that you should know about. This is the Lily-of-the-Valley (see picture below), which happens to be extremely poisonous. You can see that it has bell shaped flowers but the leaves are incredibly similar. If you find plants with thinner leaves but still that have that Garlic aroma, it could be that you have found three cornered leeks or Few Flowered Garlic.
In season from April to June, the Wild Garlic or Ramson can be identified by its amazing aroma, indeed when walking through Woodland you are probably going to find it firstly with your nose. The smell is that of a fresh, herby, green garlic. Likened to Spring Onions, it's a powerful smell and one that sets my mind spinning with recipes and meals to come. The smell is a key aid in the identification of this wonderful plant. Lily-of-the-Valley has no smell until it is in flower. It does not smell of garlic at all.
The Wild Garlic has long spear head shaped green leaves, so does the its look alike, however Wild Garlc's leaves grow from the base of the plant, whereas Lily-of-the-Valley can have two or more leaves on a stem that splits further up the plant. In April, Wild Garlic can be found proudly pointing its clusters of six petalled star shaped white flowers atop of long stems. Lily-of-the-Valley blooms in May and its flowers are bell shaped. All parts of Lily-of-the-Valley are poisonous.
So you have identified the plant, and you know how to determine its poisonous look alike, now to understand what you can do with it.
Which parts of the Wild Garlic plant can you eat?
All parts of the Wild Garlic plant are edible, with the leaves being the most commonly foraged and consumed part. The flowers are fantastic, they have a delicious fresh garlic flavour and are wonderful in a salad or as a garnish. The flowers are really great eating, the perfect addition to a salad and quite yummy as a snack whilst harvesting. The bulbs are also edible, like small unripe garlic bulbs. Try not to take the bulbs though, leave them to multiply for years and years of delicious springtime meals, enjoy the other parts of the plant instead. The seeds are also edible make a delicious alternative to capers (see below recipes).
Wild Garlic Recipes
Recipes for Wild Garlic are probably as numerous as its names. You can eat young leaves and flowers raw in a salad, treat it like a salad leaf in a sandwich (Roast Chicken, Mayo and Wild Garlic is a favourite in our house).
To cook Wild Garlic as a vegetable or side, take a large bunch of cleaned leaves, stalks removed, or you can finely chop the stalks and add them to the pan as well. In a large frying pan, melt some butter, add a splash of water and some salt. Gently wilt the leaves down, similar to how you would cook spinach. Cooking takes just a couple of minutes. Try to retain some texture, they do not need much cooking at all.
A delicious Wild Garlic preserve that I like to make is Wild Garlic Salt. Simply blend a handful of Wild Garlic leaves to a paste, then add salt (at least twice the volume of salt to Wild Garlic. Buy a coarse Sea Salt for this job. Add the Sea Salt to the blended leaves and then pulse until throughly mixed. You can dry it out in the oven on a low heat (70 or so degrees) for a couple of hours or allow it to dry out on a sunny window sill for a couple of days (on a flat tray). Store in an airtight container and this salt will last you well into barbecue season when it really takes a steak to new levels. Its delicious!
Another quick recipe is to make Wild Garlic butter. Finely chop Wild Garlic leaves, say about 75g. Mash a whole block of soft unsalted butter in a bowl using a fork and some sea salt. Start with a good punch of salt, then taste before adding more. Stir in the Ramsons. Using a piece of baking parchment, roll and shape the butter into a log, then twist the ends to form a cracker. Chill until needed or you can freeze the Wild Garlic butter for a month. Cutting off slices as you need it.
A great use for the immature seeds is to turn them into capers. Picking the seeds when they are still green and flower petals almost gone. The process of making Wild Garlic Seed Capers is simple, but takes a little time. Picking the seeds form the plant in the first place, making sure that you leave all of the stem is the starting point. To make one small jar of these delicious capers, you'll need a jars worth of Wild Garlic seeds. Wash them and allow them to dry. Place your seeds in a larger jar, layering with salt and then place in the fridge to brine for 2 to 3 weeks. Once time has passed, remove from the jar and rinse. Allow to dry out completely then place them back into a clean jar (sterilised) topping up with vinegar until they are covered. Allow to gently pickle for a couple of months and you have a fantastic, some might say superior, alternative to capers.
Other Wild Garlic recipes that you can make include Wild Garlic Pesto, perfect for pasta dishes. You can flavour pasta with it (try my Wild Pasta Recipe). Whilst discussing Italy we should also talk about Wild Garlic Focaccia, try that one and love it! Kiev, Soups, under Cheese on Toast, Pizzas, Butters.. The list of Wild Garlic recipes just goes on. This is simply a wonderful plant and a great one to start out with if you are just starting out with Foraging.
Wild Garlic Alternatives
Living in the South East, Wild Garlic was quite a scarcity. Intense agriculture and the lack of wild space as well as drier conditions makes it challenging for this fantastic wild herb to thrive. So before I planted my own patch (for regular use) I used to rely on other, plentiful alternatives. If you want that green, garlic flavour and don't have any Ramsons near you, you can always opt for Few Flowered Garlic, which in my opinion is as good as Wild Garlic, it also emerges earlier so you can start eating wild garlicky greens sometimes from February. Wild leeks or Three Cornered leeks are also excellent, they persist much longer into the season too! Or you can opt for Jack by the Hedge, which makes a delicious Kiev. If you are a gardener you can grow garlic chives. Alternatively, if you have a shady wet patch in your garden you can even grow your own Wild Garlic!
If you are at the beginning of your wild food journey or the most experienced forager, the Spring months means that Wild Garlic will be on the menu. So why not grab a pair of scissors and a trug and take yourself down to your nearest woodland to see if you you can find your own delicious patch.
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