Yesterday was St David’s Day and was, meteorologically speaking, the start of Spring. For those of us that prefer the ancient ways of doing things, Spring doesn’t start until the 20th March with the equinox, which like solstices, is related to the orbit of the earth around the sun. Regardless of the date and whether you think it is Spring yet or not, a walk in the countryside will show that nature is definitely heading towards Spring. Green leaves are appearing on some of the hedgerow shrubs and bushes such as Hawthorn, Elder and Wild Gooseberry. The nettles are several inches high and ready for picking. I was delighted to find lots of Wild Garlic with leaves over 6 inches long and the air heavy with it’s pungent aroma and was inspired to write about it. Wild garlic is not only great to eat but also has many of the health benefits of the cultivated garlic, it is effective in reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Where to find Wild Garlic
Wild Garlic or Ramsons is found across most of the country. The map below from the National Biodiversity Network shows there is barely a 10 kilometre square in the country without it unless you are in the Highlands or Ireland. It is found in damp, Ancient deciduous woodlands, shady lanes and some hedgerows. Like Bluebells, it prefers slightly acidic soils so if you know a good Bluebell wood it might have Wild Garlic too. Given suitable conditions it can be prolific carpeting significant areas, almost turning the woodland floor white.
Wild Garlic Season
The leaves of Wild Garlic can be picked in most years from March to June. They are at their best and most flavoursome when bright green before the flowers open. As they age and start to turn yellow, the flavour is less strong. The star-shaped flowers are usually seen in May and June.
Identifying Wild Garlic
There are a few other plants that it is possible to confuse with Wild Garlic. The usual sources of confusion are young Lords and Ladies leaves, Lily of the Valley and Autumn Crocus. These are all poisonous so take care! Mistaking the latter for Wild Garlic has lead to a death in the UK – you have been warned! The best test is to crush a leaf and use your nose, if it smells of garlic it is garlic (though beware the smell of garlic can stay on your hands!).
Lily of The Valley has drooping bell-shaped flowers along the stem. Two or three leaves come from a single purple stem. It contains a toxin and mistaken identify has been the cause of poisonings in Europe.
Meadow Saffron (also called Autumn Crocus) has 5 to 11 “strappy” and almost vertical green leaves up to 40 cm long. It is mainly a plant of damp meadows and mainly found in the West Midlands, Welsh Borders and East Anglia though has been introduced in other parts of the country. It is a bitter tasting alkaloid, which is Nature’s way of saying “don’t eat me”. There have, however been many poisonings, some fatal, on mainland Europe when it has been confused with Wild Garlic growing in woods.
Smaller leaves of Lords and Ladies may be confused for Wild Garlic. It has many other names including Cuckoo Pint and Wild Arum. If eaten by accident they give an immediate burning sensation to the mouth and throat. This happened in April 2018 – a whole family were hospitalised for confusing Wild Garlic with Lords and Ladies.
Wild Garlic and Lords and Ladies are often found growing close together so it is worth being aware of the differences.
- Lords and Ladies leaves have irregular edges and many deep veins.
- A larger leaf has backward facing lobes – a bit like an arrow head and is pretty distinctive.
- Smaller leaves can look more like a Wild Garlic leaf but the veins should still be obvious.
- They won’t smell of Garlic.
- Wild Garlic leaves are long, pointed, “spear-shaped”.
- They do not have veins – just a prominent central mid-rib (looking like an extension of the stalk).
In the below photograph we have – from left to right:
1. Lords and Ladies – rear
2. Lords and Ladies – front
3. Wild Garlic – front
4. Wild Garlic – rear
Picking Wild Garlic
Do not dig up Wild Garlic bulbs. Unless you have landowner’s consent it is illegal and the bulbs are disappointingly small. Harvest leaves, stems, flowers and seed pods using scissors. Look out for bird droppings! Pick a little here and there rather than too much in one place and watch where you are putting your feet. As you pick, it is easy to bruise the leaves so put them gently into a basket or bag without packing them in. Like many wild leaves, they will wilt after picking so use quickly or refrigerate (in a sealed bag!).
Give any flowers a shake to remove any insects, wash in cold water. If required, pat dry with a kitchen towel or a tea towel to remove moisture.
Culinary Uses for Wild Garlic
You can use Wild Garlic anywhere where you would use regular garlic, the flavour is however milder.
Wild Garlic leaves are the mildest part of the plant. They can be harvested as early as the middle of January in a mild winter. They can be used raw sparingly in salads, in sandwiches, dressings and finely chopped as a garnish. A popular use is in pesto in the place of basil. I am a great fan of garlic butter made by mixing finely chopped leaves into salted butter. Use for garlic bread, Chicken Kiev or frying; it freezes well too.
When cooked the leaves can be used in many ways. The simplest use is as a vegetable as you would prepare and serve spinach. It can also be used blanched and pureed as a sauce for white fish, in soup (“neat” or mixed with nettle tips), stews, pasta sauce, risottos, quiche, frittata, cheese scones, focaccia, dumplings, and lots more – see recipe links at the end of this post.
The leaves can be preserved in honey, oil, as pesto, in pickles, chutneys and vinegars. A puree mixed with oil (rapeseed or oil) can be put in jars (Kilner preferable to tin-lidded) and covered with a little oil or frozen in ice cube trays. The leaves can be dried with a dehydrator or in a very low oven. When dry (brittle) store in jars in a dry, cool, dark place.
Fermenting is very much in vogue. You can create a pickle by pounding chopped leaves and salt and putting it in jars to ferment for 6 months at a minimum! (Alternative method in Mark Hix article 1 in recipe section).
Stalks / Flower Buds
The stems and unopened flowers can be added to salads and other dishes such as stir fries. They can be pickled or preserved by salting.
The opened flowers can also be eaten. The flavour is stronger than that of the leaves. In small quantities the flowers make a decorative and tasty addition to salads and can be used as a garnish. They can also be made into great savoury fritters.
Fruits (seed pods)
Another little used “crop” from the Wild Garlic at the end of the season as the flowers go over is the seed pods or fruit that form in their place. The flavour gets stronger as the seeds ripen. The seed pods can be stripped from the stalks with a fork over a bowl.
- You can make Garlic butter by pounding them with a pestle and mortar and mixing with butter.
- They can also be pickled (try elderflower or pine needle vinegar) and eaten with cheese or put in a dressing.
- A salad dressing can be made by liquidising with a little olive oil.
- Enjoy some scattered in a salad.
Wild Garlic Recipes
Articles / Pages with collections of Wild Garlic recipes
- Wild Garlic Pesto and Tomato Pasta Bake
- Wild Garlic Soup
- Wild Garlic and Sausage Fusilli (Jamie Oliver) – Don’t believe the “Wild garlic can be found in meadows!!”
- Wild Garlic Pesto