Wild Garlic - Your definitive guide
Hello! In this tutorial, I thought I would share my definitive guide to wild garlic. Including what it is, where it grows, how to identify, harvest, store and use it and a few good-to-know look-a-likes (plus how to tell them apart). Are you ready? Lets get started!
What is wild garlic?
Wild garlic, or Allium ursinum, is a beautiful, perennial spring and summer herb found across Ireland and the British Isles (as well as Northern Europe, Canada and North America) that can often be smelled long before it is seen, thanks to its decidedly oniony-garlicky scent.
Wild garlic can be found growing wild in damp, often shady woodland corners and alongside streams and brooks. It is frequently found carpeting the forest floor alongside cuckoo’s pint and lily of the valley (more about these later).
It is well known as a forager’s delight, being one of the first herbs to arrive in the spring and being easy to locate and identify. However, as with any wild harvest, it should only be picked with the landowner’s permission (and digging up the roots (in the wild) is illegal.)
How is wild garlic used?
Wild garlic can be eaten both raw and cooked and the entire plant is edible. This includes the roots (although illegal to dig up in the wild), young shoots, leaves, flowers, flowering stems and seeds. (Please note, while edible for humans, it is harmful for dogs.)
The best time to harvest wild garlic depends on the part you intend to use. Young leaves and shoots can be picked from early spring (around mid-February onwards). Flowers can be collected from around mid-April and the seeds can be gathered in early summer.
The easiest way to gather wild garlic is to carefully snip the bits you want with a small pair of scissors, then lay them gently in a bag or basket. Following a good wash in cold water, it can then be stored in the drawer of your fridge.
Leaves and shoots will stay fresh for around 3-4 days after you have picked them, while flowers are best used on the same day. The seed pods can be pickled and preserved like capers, making them a useful addition to your winter pantry.
How do you identify wild garlic?
Wild garlic can be identified by its leaves and smell in early spring and by its leaves, smell and flowers later in the season. Its habit of growing in large swathes also helps in identification. However, there are a few look-a-likes, which you should be aware of.
Its leaves are wide along their length, but pointed at the top, dull rather than shiny and soft to touch. Their veins run parallel to each other along the width of the leaf and are relatively spaced out. Each leaf grows singly on its own stem from the base of the plant.
The flowers are smallish, white and star-shaped. They grow together in globe-like clusters at the top of a single stem rising up from the middle of the plant. The seed heads are green and look like three little marbles joined together in the middle.
Before you collect or consume any wild garlic, it is important to rule out its two main look-a-likes – cuckoo’s pint and lily of the valley. (And in the USA, snowbells and crow’s poison or false garlic). Not least because they are poisonous!
How to tell apart cuckoo's pint and wild garlic
The most obvious difference between cuckoo’s pint and wild garlic, is the smell. Wild garlic has an unmistakeable onion-garlicky scent, which cuckoo’s pint does not have. So, gently crush each leaf to double check its identity (Make sure to wash your hands after).
The most dangerous time for mixing these two plants up, is early in the spring, when the shoots have not fully emerged to show the shiny, arrow-like appearance of its leaves, and the peripheral veins, which radiate out from the central vein.
Later in the year, it is easier to distinguish, with its central spadix surrounded by a light-green, hood-like sheath, and its beautiful, bright red and orange berries. It is important to note that all parts of this plant are poisonous and can cause irritation of the mouth and throat if eaten, leading to swelling and difficulty breathing.
How to tell apart lily of the valley and wild garlic
Lily of the valley also looks uncannily like wild garlic in the spring, with the same shaped leaf and growth habit. Again, smell is the most reliable method to test it. So, gently crush a leaf to ascertain the presence of the garlicky smell. (Make sure to wash your hands after).
There are also other ways to tell the leaves apart. Lily of the valley leaves are shinier than wild garlic and their parallel veins lie much closer together. They also grow in pairs of two or three, unlike the single leaves of the garlic.
Later in the season, they can be distinguished by their flowers. While the wild garlic flowers are white, star-shaped and grow in clusters, lily of the valley flowers are white, bell-shaped and grow one-by-one along the length of the stem (like white bluebells).
Again, all parts of lily of the valley are poisonous and can cause nausea, flushing, hallucinations, arrhythmia, coma and death. So please seek help immediately if you are worried about accidental ingestion of this plant.
Well, there we go! I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and have learned all sorts of useful information about what wild garlic is, how to identify it and how to use it. Before I say goodbye though, I would just like to remind you to…
Please, please, please, never eat any plant unless you are completely certain of its identify and its edibility. If in doubt, leave it out! Also, never pick more than you need for your personal or family use. A rule of thumb is to only harvest one plant if there are seven more beside it. Remember, our wild plants are food sources for bees, butterflies and other insects and animals too.
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