Growing and eating wild garlic

Very few of the really shade-tolerant vegetables are as productive, versatile and useful as wild garlic (Allium ursinum), also known as bear garlic, ramps or ramson. When I was young, on a family holiday in Wales, I discovered a wood carpeted with ramsons. Overwhelmed by such exuberant bounty, I stuffed my pockets with leaves. In the car on the way home my parents noticed a certain odour taking over the space and after a quick search my foragings were evicted. I suppose it could have been worse, it could have been me. Nowadays I have my own tame patch of wild garlic in my allotment and I can harvest it when I like.

Wild garlic

As with many perennial crops, there is a useful synergy between wild garlic and the cultivated kind (Allium sativum). It starts to be ready just as stored bulbs are usually running out, some time in February or March, and runs through until about June. Wild garlic can be used pretty much anywhere you want a garlicky flavour, with the caveat that the flavour doesn’t survive cooking for long, so you generally need to add it to cooked dishes near the end. Ramson pesto packs quite a punch. I like to chop leaves into salads: whole leaves are a bit strong to eat in bulk but chopped roughly and mixed with other leaves they are delicious. Layering a few leaves into a sandwich works well too. For some seriously local food, you can try using it to supply the garlic flavour in broad bean hummus.

However, if its garlic flavour were the only thing that wild garlic had going for it, it would be best regarded as a herb and grown in a small patch in a shady corner. What makes it useful as a bulk vegetable is the very fact that it loses its garlic flavour when cooked for more than a few minutes, leaving a very tasty, oniony green. As such I use it anywhere where I would use onion, particularly as the base of a sauce, be it pasta, curry, stew or soup. You can also substitute it for spinach for delicious variations on dishes such as lasagne. It makes an excellent pot herb, either on its own or mixed with other leaves that are available at the time, such as annual and perennial kales or leaf beet. One thing to be careful with is that wild garlic quickly develops a rather unpleasant burnt-onion taste if allowed to dry out while cooking, so you need to take care to keep it moist. In our household we love wild garlic on pizza but we always layer it at the bottom so that the other ingredients protect it.

Almost all parts of wild garlic are usable, including the leaves, stems and flowers. The flowers look amazing in a salad. The bulbs are also usable once the leaves have died down, but they are not as good as the bulbs of cultivated garlic and they don’t store very well once lifted. And of course, if you eat all the bulbs then you don’t get the other parts. That said, if you have a good supply of them you might want to try the recipe for pickled wild garlic bulbs that can be found – with many others – on the excellent Eat Weeds blog.

You can harvest wild garlic simply by pulling off individual leaves or, for less garlicky hands and to speed things up, you can cut a clump at a time with scissors. I generally put my wild garlic leaves in a bowl of cold water for five minutes as soon as I get home, to preserve and wash them. They’ll then keep for at least a week in the fridge. Another way of harvesting that gives a slightly different product is to dig up a clump and then prepare the individual plants by cutting off the roots and removing the sheath of the bulb. The whole thing then hangs together in a sort of ‘spring onion’ version of wild garlic. Fried in plenty of oil and dipped in a sauce these are gourmet food indeed.

wild garlic clump, separated

wild garlic clump, separated

Ramsons are an easy plant to grow, flourishing in the parts of the garden that most other plants avoid. They are a plant of deep woodland, so they like plenty of shade and a moist, humus-rich soil. Once you have got them established they will generally self-seed (to the point of nuisance if they weren’t so edible). Their habit of dying down in the summer makes them easy to manage as you can choose this time to top-dress them, mulch them or hoe over the top of the bulbs. They can even be used in a strip as a bit of a barrier against the spread of other plants. During the spring they suppress other plants by the strength of their growth and during the summer you can hoe the strip. Ramsons are capable of growing through quite a thick mulch: their leaves form green spikes that punch up through mulch before unfurling. Alternatively the dormant period is long enough that you could fit in another crop or a green manure, or interplant wild garlic with another perennial that makes use of the later part of the year.

wild garlic - just emerging

wild garlic – just emerging

Wild garlic will tolerate growing in the open, but as soon as there is hot sun its leaves will burn off and it will retreat to its bulb. It is worth growing some wild garlic in the deepest shade you can find, in which case it will persist until midsummer. Wild garlic can be raised from seed or, more easily, grown from bulbs. The bulbs do not store like those of cultivated garlic, they dry out and die quite quickly if they are not stored moist. They transplant very well ‘in the green’ (while the bulbs are growing), which also avoids the problem of forgetting where you have planted the bulbs! If you are in Scotland, don’t forget that it is legal to pick leaves, flowers and seeds for your own use without the owner’s permission but not to uproot a plant (e.g. by transplanting bulbs) or to harvest commercially. If you want to do either of these you will have to ask the owner.

One word of warning, whether you are foraging wild garlic or growing it. While wild garlic is entirely edible, it can be growing in with leaves of plants that are quite poisonous, as most of the spring bulbs are. It is hard to mistake wild garlic for anything else when you look closely – the combination of the broad, soft leaf and the garlic smell is unique – but if you are picking lots of leaves you might become a little careless. In the photo below you’ll see a patch of poisonous snowdrops growing in about the wild garlic, so if you are foraging, take care, and if you are growing I would recommend removing any snowdrops, bluebells or other spring bulbs from the same bed.

wild garlic 02

Photo: Monimail Tower woodlands from Scottish Wild Harvests Association’s Forage In Fife.

In North America, the name ramps has transferred itself to a similar-looking plant, Allium tricoccum, also known as wild leek. It’s a fascinating piece of convergent evolution. The two species are actually rather distantly related within the Allium genus, but by adapting to the same woodland niche they have come to be very similar in both looks and behaviour. Both are spring ephemerals, coming up and dying down early to make the most of the spring sunlight before the trees leaf up. Both carpet the ground and have broad, delicate leaves, adapted to capturing as much light as possible and dropping the usual allium adaptations to drought and strong sunshine. Despite this there are differences reflecting their divergent ancestry. The North American ramps has shallower bulbs than the Eurasian and the whole plant is more commonly used rather than just the leaves. The leaves and bulbs become tough and inedible and start to die down once the plant starts flowering, unlike A. ursinum, in which leaves and flowers occur together.

Further reading: Forest Gardening; Real Spring Onions.

62 thoughts on “Growing and eating wild garlic

  1. Great post! That is quite a patch of wild garlic there! I have been trying to start some from seed, but so far, have not been successful. Perhaps they need a period of cold first. I have not seen it in the wild where I live (Pacific Northwest of the U.S.), but our climates are quite similar.

    • Just for any future readers: I, too, have been trying unsuccessfully to start wild garlic from seed, several times. And now I’ve read elsewhere, that apparently it is very, very hard, because even the commercial seeds that are supposedly treated to germinate faster, usually still need over a year to do so, no matter what the package says. And since you can’t keep them moist all the time in a small seed pot for that long without growing moss, it’s recommended that you just sow them outside (somewhere they won’t be overgrown), and hope that ants won’t steal them. And yes, they need a long chill period.
      Or you look for bulbs to buy – though I’ve never seen any.
      One point not mentioned in this article is that wild garlic needs lime-rich soil. So it’s really no use trying if you live in an area with naturally acidic soil and/or on sand subsoil. For my perennial garlicky needs, I’ve had much more success establishing garlic chives, which aren’t so picky in terms of soil, but need sunlight. Or for the very early spring, wild chives (A. schoenoprasum), which really taste more like garlic than chives, as long as you don’t cook them. The latter grow wild even in our naturally sandy soil, and the plants we inherited from the previous owner of our garden some 30+ years ago, have long since gone ferral in the lawn-cum-meadow. (You can tell because they sprout long before the grass does. I suspect the vegetatively produced bulblings get transplanted by ants, since I never see the plants bloom. Thankfully they can be distinguished from crocus and snow drop leaves by the smell and a rounder form.) Though they do grow into a more usable thickness (i.e. like actual chives, not like sewing thread) if the clumps are transplanted into humus-rich soil.

      • Sowing in situ and being patient is good advice for the seed. I can’t agree with the comment about alkaline soils though. Although this is commonly said about wild garlic it isn’t really my experience. The underlying rock here and in most of Scotland is acidic. This doesn’t seem to prevent wild garlic from growing extensively in the wild or quite happily in my garden. Clearly its preference for a higher pH is only mild. In a garden situation it is very easy to raise pH by adding lime or wood ash.

    • It is my understanding that the seeds MUST have a solid freeze before they germinate, and take up to 3 and 4 years to reach maturity. I planted some 2 years ago, in the fall. First year, it came up like slender threads of grass. Second year returned as blades of grass that achieved 5 or 6 inches in length. I am hopeful that next year brings usable results. Growing on LI, NY

      • That sounds about right. Once they are established you can start splitting clumps and they will keep self seeding, but if you start from seeds it is a bit of a slow burn at the start.

  2. Hi Blythe. That’s not my patch – it’s at a community a way south of here called Monimail Tower. My own patch is rather more modest, but wild garlic definitely does tend to take over if you let it. A lot of the forestry trees and other plants we use here in Scotland come from the Pacific Northwest due to the similar climate, so I imagine wild garlic should grow well with you if you can get it started. Best of luck with it. Alan

  3. Really useful and definitive post, especially the tips on how to cook them well. I’ve got a patch growing nicely in the garden and am amazed at how readily they spread. I’ve also been experimenting with growing cultivated garlic as a perennial. It extends the season a little further as the green shoots are out (from January in Wiltshire this year) before the wild garlic is ready to be harvested. The shoots are a great substitute for spring onions when cooked, particularly in stir fries.

    • That’s really interesting. I grow cultivated garlic that way too but in my case the wild garlic definitely has a head start on the ‘spring garlic’, which is only just beginning to emerge. I imagine that cultivated garlic is more sensitive to temperature since it doesn’t have a woodland canopy to buffer it, while wild garlic needs to get on and photosynthesise before the trees leaf up, whatever the weather. I completely agree about the stir fries too!

  4. That is interesting. It might be in my case that my wild garlic is in a spot shaded by a building until later in the season so the ground probably warms up later. On the other hand my tame garlic gets the sun on the soil, at least until the trees leaf out. I wonder if the variety of the cultivated garlic makes much difference? Really enjoy your blog by the way.

  5. It’s illegal to uproot wild plants without the landowner’s permission, but fine to pick the leaves so long as you don’t overdo it. You can also harvest seed to grow your own. If you are trying to get plants then you’ll need to ask the landowner’s permission to dig some up or get some bulbs or potted plants from a supplier.

    • They freeze pretty well, yes. I wouldn’t use them in salads after thawing, but they are still good for cooking with. You can also wilt them in oil before freezing which makes them take up less room in the freezer. I generally don’t freeze them because other alliums and greens become available later and I like the seasonality of it, but if you have a glut of them it’s a good way to preserve them.

    • Allium tricoccum is native to the eastern half of North America while A. ursinum is Eurasian. I’ve never seen Allium tricoccum but from descriptions it has very similar form, habitat, taste and uses to ursinum. I assume they are closely related and European settlers seem to have transferred ursinum names directly onto tricoccum, especially ‘ramps’, the Scots equivalent of ‘ramson’ (from Old English hramsaen – onions). I hope people have the sense to leave both species where they are as they are quite likely to invade each other’s habitats. A. tricoccum is of conservation concern in some US states and Canadian provinces, so growing it at home seems like an especially good idea. Interestingly, the usually reliable Plants for a Future database has a description of A. tricoccum that is considerably different from those to be found everywhere else.

    • The general rule for planting bulbs is that you plant them so that the bottom of the bulb is at a depth of twice the length of the bulb. So if the bulb is 10cm you dig a 20cm hole for it. If you look at the clump of dug-up bulbs in the article you’ll see this is roughly right: there is the bulb which appears as a kind of sheath around the bottom of the stem, then there is white stem for an equal length above it – that is the part of the stem that has grown underground.

  6. I was in the South Lakes at the weekend and it was everywhere, it’s much more prevalent than it’s been in previous years. I wonder if it will be classed as an “invasive species” like Japanese Knotweed and Himalayan Balsam. I have a suspicion one posh eaterie in Cartmel had it on their menu as “hedge garlic”!

  7. Wish I’d seen this website a few weeks ago. As a total novice, I ordered some bulbs in the green and planted them in a separate tub in compost, as I only have a small garden and didn’t want them to overrrun. I didn’t put them in shade, and now they’re looking very sorry for themselves. Anything I can do to ensure they’ll come back next year? Obviously, I’ll move the tub into a shady spot.

    • Hi Ian. They like to be moist, so make sure that you don’t let the tub dry out. And if they look like they have died, don’t give up hope until next year: they may just have died back to the bulb prematurely. Also remember not to neglect it once it has died down. A lot of bulbs in tubs die because people forget about them once they aren’t visible and forget to water them. Planting something else in the pot can help with this.

      • Now that’s a great bit of advice I’ve not heard before 🙂 I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about the comments to desperately grow this stuff, I’d pay for people to get it out of my garden. Good luck to those trying, shame I can’t send you a clod of my heavy clay soil, infested with the darn things! It was fun to experiment with, cooking wise, in the early days but now we don’t bother.

  8. We are growing wild garlic very successfully and we are harvesting the seeds, the leaves are great in salads and if you are not a lover of garlic you will enjoy the leaves.

  9. I have garlic growing in my garden in Southern Spain, in full sun. The ground is very hard and dry. No I did not plant it, but it invades the whole bed unless I am ruthless. Only now am I realising that I can use it and am looking forward to trying the stuff posted here. The only difference I can see is that the leaves are much narrower.

  10. i was wondering, when’s the best time to dig up afew wild bulbs for replanting elsewhere -like a pot, before,during or after flowering? sorry if you’ve already answered a similar question & ive missed it it. thanks

  11. Where did you get your wild garlic from? I tried growing from seed last year but it didn’t take. I will try again but maybe bulbs would be better.

    • I got mine from a wild source, so I can’t recommend any particular suppliers. Bulbs are certainly much easier to establish than seeds. Now that they are established, mine seed themselves quite easily, which helps to bulk up the numbers.

  12. Hi Alan,
    We have some small ramsons patches growing in our forest, but they don’t seem to spread themselves. The forest is moist and shadey enough.
    Is there anything i can do to help them spread faster?

    • Hi dizid
      If it’s your forest then there’s nothing to stop you from lifting and dividing some clumps and spreading them around. Wild garlic clumps usually get quite crowded quite quickly so this is an excellent way of increasing your stocks.

  13. Triangular stalked garlic (Allium trisquestrum) is really tasty as well. It seems to thrive in gardens where I live (SW UK) to the point of being invasive. The stalks are really juicy and succulent with a milder flavour than ramsons.

    • I’m assuming you mean North American ramps, Allium tricoccum. In Scotland ramps is just another name for wild garlic. I haven’t seen A. tricoccum in the flesh, but from pictures on the internet I’d say that A. ursinum has a softer leaf without the reddish tinge to the stem that A tricoccum has. As I say in the article, I hope not to see them side by side as it would be better if people kept each on the side of the Atlantic that it is used to.

  14. hi.just curious,but if I were to collect enough wild garlic seed could I introduce the seed to use in recipes or are the seeds poisonous.

    • I’m afraid I have no idea. I can’t find anything online suggesting that any kind of Allium seeds are poisonous, but perhaps no-one has tried. ‘Onion seed’ used in recipes is actually from Nigella sativa. It would be very fiddly to collect so I can’t really see it being worth it.

  15. Poyntzfield Herb Nursery in Scotland has wild garlic plants for sale. An added bonus for us is that they are organic, and bio-dynamically grown. And inexpensive!

  16. I’m glad I stumbled onto this site. I love wild garlic and want to try growing it in large pots under a pecan tree in my yard where it will be shaded. I’m in Mississippi, less than 200 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and our land has extensive woodlands and creeks. In spring, I will flag where they grow and dig up some bulbs after the plants go dormant. Wish me luck!
    I want to make ramp pesto. I make traditional basil pesto and started making cilantro pesto last year because my garden is overrun with both herbs. I freeze the pesto in ice cube trays, but I’d like to store it in sealed canning jars. I doubt I can use a boiling water bath to preserve it. Does anyone know if that is possible? Can I put a layer of olive oil on top of the jarred pesto to preserve it? And would I need to continuously refrigerate it or would it be shelf-stable?

    • At this time of year bulbs can only be bought ‘in the green’ – i.e. growing in pots. A quick web search will find lots of suppliers. With seeds you would be better to wait until fresh seed is available in June and sow it in situ as soon as you get it.

  17. Just discovered this site and love some of the comments. Close to where I live in Cheshire, we have the remnants of an ancient woodland which would have covered the entire county. Running alongside the river is an area some 200metres in length by 20/30 metres wide of beautiful wild garlic. The flowers are just about to open into the fantastic white star shape. Could you tell me, as it runs through a public (and popular) woodland, would I need permission to forage?

    • Sound lovely. In Scotland you don’t need permission to forage for personal use, only for commercial use or if it involves uprooting plants. I don’t know if the law is the same in England – maybe someone else in the comments can enlighten us?

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