May 24, 2017
I had a hard time deciding what to call this post since there are so many names being used for this one plant. Botanically called ‘allium ursinum’ the most common English names include – ramson, buckram, broad-leaved garlic, wood garlic, bear leek, devil’s garlic, gypsy’s onions, stinking Jenny or bear’s garlic.
In German mainly known as Bärlauch [bear leek] you will also find it under the names – Hexenzwiebel [witches onion], Ramsen, Waldknoblauch [wood garlic], Knoblauchspinat [garlic spinach], Hundsknoblauch [dog’s garlic], wilder Knofel [wild garlic] or Zigeunerlauch [gypsy’s leek].
Wild garlic is a favourite of both brown bear and wild boar. Apparently brown bears have a taste for the bulbs and like to dig them up to get their metabolism up and running after the long winter. Which explains why one of its common names is ‘bear’s garlic’.
Dairy farmers consider wild garlic a pest and usually try to keep their cows from eating it because the strong garlic-y flavour can actually taint the taste of the milk. In Switzerland some farmers use this to their advantage and use this milk to make garlic butter.
Wild garlic is a wild relative of chives, onion and garlic and is native to Europe, Asia and [central to eastern] regions of North America [overall temperate regions].
The leaves are broadly lanceolate and have a dark, saturated green [shiny on top and matt on the underside]. Most of the time they come in a pair of two [rarely one or three leaves] and grow to be five to twenty millimetre in height [two to five centimetre wide].
The flowers stem is triangular in cross-section and flowers bloom in an umbel of six to twenty white flowers. They are star-like with six white tepals.
The fruit is egg shaped and has three capsules separated from each other.
Wild garlic starts to sprout early in the year soon after the last snow melts away. Best time to harvest is in April or May before the flowers appear [once they flower they will lose most of their flavour and get tougher in texture]. They flower from April to June.
The bulbs is best dug up from July to December [they will have less flavour during the time they produce leaves or flowers].
SHOPPING + STORAGE
Wild garlic mostly grows in deciduous forests with moist, slightly acidic soil. It flourishes in semi shaded regions, often close to streams and gives off an incredibly pungent garlic-y smell. It usually creates a full blanket of dense growth in large batches. Harvest the plant by cutting the leaves from the plant as close to the ground as possible. Try to take from plants in larger batches [they spread rather slowly] and never cut all leaves from one plant [the plant lives for multiple years and has a hard time surviving with few leaves].
WATCH OUT! Be cautious when picking wild garlic. The plant can be mistaken for a variety of poisonous wild plants. Most commonly for lily of the valley – very poisonous. Here a few ways to tell them apart.
Wild garlic – only one leave per stem, leaves are matt on the underside, leaves tend to be wavy on the edges.
Lily of the valley – leaves usually grow in pairs on the stem, leaves are shiny on the underside, leaves don’t tend to be wavy on the edges.
Once they flower it’s very easy to keep them apart. Wild garlic has star shaped flowers in an umbel. Lily of the valley has bell shaped flowers along one stem.
One of the best ways to distinguish wild garlic from other plants is by rubbing the flower between fingers. If it releases a strong garlic aroma, it is the right plant.
It is important to NOT consume the herb unless it has been properly identified. Unfortunately there are plenty of cases of severe poisoning each year.
Over the last years the herb grew in popularity and can therefore be bought nowadays on farmers markets and in stores. If you don’t feel comfortable identifying the plant in the woods I would suggest this option.
Fresh wild garlic doesn’t keep too well. Best is to put them in water or wrap them in a moist kitchen towel and store in the fridge.
To keep for longer it needs to be processed in some way. Easiest way to preserve the plant is to pickle them in vinegar [e.g. wild garlic capers] or mix it with oil [e.g. pesto]. Another way would be to freeze it [loses only a little of its taste].
Although you can buy wild garlic as a dried spice it is rather difficult to dry it yourself. If not done professionally they tend to get splintery and lose most of their taste.
In Russia, stems of the plant are preserved by salting and consumed as a salad.
Unlike common cultivated garlic, it’s the leaves that are eaten rather than the bulbs. The taste is more delicate, similar to the flavour of chives.
The leaves can be used raw as salad, spice or as an ingredient for pesto. They can be boiled like spinach and are being used in soups and stews. Since heat changes the sulphuric substances [and thereby loses some of its distinct flavour] it is mainly eaten raw. If cooked, try to keep the cooking time brief and add only at the very end. One basic rule of thumb is that you can use wild garlic for anything you would normally use onions or garlic.
The buds and flowers are used as much as as the leaves. The buds have a delicious almost peppery/garlic taste and are delightful sprinkled over raw salads or likewise as a seasoning.
Using lactic acid fermentation wild garlic can be turned into a kimchi.
As a food, wild garlic is considered very healthy and its consumption is encouraged almost everywhere in the world.
In folk medicine the herb is being used to treat gastrointestinal disorders. Wild garlic repels unwanted darmbacteria without harming the useful ones. The phosphorus oils are said to have a positiv effect on digestion, airways, liver, bile, intestine and stomach. In addition, there is a healing effect in arteriosclerosis, hypertension and intestinal diseases. It also stimulates metabolism, has a positive effect on cholesterol levels and helps with worm infections.
It is often used in homemade remedies for treatment of flu, cold, common fever, cramps and regular headaches, among other ailments.
This leek herb also has an appetising and stimulating effect on the digestive juices due to its high content of mustard oil glycosides.
Despite all the beneficial properties of wild garlic, it should be used with extreme caution.You should not use a wild garlic tincture during pregnancy, lactation period. If you do not take into account the dosage of wild garlic, it may cause insomnia, disturb function of the heart and vessels. Physicians advise to eat no more than 20 wild garlic leaves in one day.
Wild garlic contains a lot of Vitamin C, iron and essential oils. In addition we find allicin, vinyl sulphide, mercaptan, potassium, calcium, magnesium, manganese and mineral salts. It acts detoxifying and has blood-purifying properties.
Small quantities of wild garlic oil are also added to some cosmetic products that promise to keep the skin healthy, fresh and acne free.