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.
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.
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 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.
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.