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Wild Garlic: Springtime Bounty

Wander through any damp, shady woodland at this time of year and if you’re lucky you’ll breathe in the heady aroma of wild garlic. Stoop down, rub a leaf between finger and thumb, and be immediately transported into the kitchen.

Otherwise known as ransoms, the Latin name for wild garlic is allium ursinum, a reference to the sleepy bears said to have been partial to a springtime snack of wild garlic to regain their strength after their winter’s hibernation. Wild boar are also keen on rootling up and munching wild garlic, explaining its other names of bear’s garlic and hog’s garlic. Other, less complimentary names include Devil’s Posy and Stink Plant.

Less pungent than regular garlic, wild garlic is related to onions, leeks and chives. It’s reputed to protect the heart while managing blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and it’s antibacterial and an antioxidant, protecting body cells from the damaging effects of ageing. The beneficial effects of wild garlic have long been known, being carried a pocket to ward off flu in Ireland during the 1918 pandemic, and listed in Greece as a herbal remedy for detoxification as long ago as the 1st Century. Its beneficial properties led to it being awarded ‘Plant of the Year’ by the Association for the Protection and Research of European Medicinal Plants.

The aroma of wild garlic is unmistakeable, but it’s also recognisable by its oval, pointed leaves, a rich glossy green. Don’t confuse it with the poisonous lily-of-the-valley, with its leaves growing from the stem – the leaves of wild garlic sprout from the base of the plant.

Food for free is an enticing prospect, and there’s something immensely satisfying about creating a dish from nature’s bounty. But you have to be quick – spring is a time of rapid change, hustling plants along so they change every day. Once the pretty white star-like flowers, early nectar for pollinating insects, arrive on their long slender stalks, wild garlic starts to lose its flavour. After flowering, the plants die down, to reappear the following spring.

Unlike regular garlic, you’ll be foraging for the leaves, leaving the bulbs intact so the plants survive for future years. Take only what you need and don’t take more than one or two leaves from each plant, leaving enough for others and for wildlife. Wash the leaves when you get home, and use them to make a delicious pesto – freeze any you don’t use immediately – soup or risotto. The leaves can be used raw to add a punch to salads, or steep chopped leaves in olive oil to make a delicious garlic oil.

Happy foraging!

Snowdrops

Late winter’s ballerinas have arrived, and suddenly spring seems not so far away. Peeking their cheeky heads above last season’s decaying leaves, they nod sagely when storms hustle through. Tutus white against the sodden ground, they’re a cheerful reminder that nature has noticed the longer, lighter days.

Around twenty species of snowdrop are native to Europe and the Middle East, having arrived on our shores in the 16th century. Hundreds of different varieties are now grown as garden plants, sporting names like Grumpy, Octopussy and Diggory.

The Latin name for the snowdrop family is Galanthus, meaning ‘milk flower’, with Galanthus nivalis seen most commonly in nature – nivalis referring to snow. They’re related to those showy golden springtime favourites, the daffodils, other cousins being onions and the handsome cobalt Agapanthus.

Snowdrops now emerge in early January – two generations ago they wouldn’t have been seen until late February. Although with so many varieties and a changing climate, they can debut as early as October and as late as April. It’s not unusual even nowadays to have a hard frost during this time. For all their beauty, snowdrops are tough cookies, and although they hang their heads, they’re never bashful. They can survive sub-zero temperatures thanks to a special substance in their leaves acting as an anti-freeze. This prevents damaging ice crystals forming in their elastic leaves. After a cold spell, snowdrops collapse as if exhausted, to be resurrected once the temperature rises again.

If you’re observant, you might notice snowdrop flowers remain tightly shut on cooler days. When the winter sun emerges, blinking, and the temperature rises, the outer segments of the flowers adjust their position. Their petals move outwards to accommodate hungry pollinators attracted by the flowers’ honeyed scent.

In folklore, snowdrops are associated with hope, being the first flower to emerge after winter. They’re also linked with chastity, friendship and purity but also death and consolation. Traditionally they were scattered on Christian church alters on Candlemas Day at the beginning of February. According to an old proverb, ’The snowdrop in purest white array, first rears her head on Candlemas Day.’ Churchyards are fertile grounds for snowdrops, many planted there in Victorian times. 

So, next time you’re out in nature, pause for a moment beside a carpet of punky little snowdrops and remember this hopeful poem, attributed to Scottish poet George Wilson:

‘And thus the snowdrop, like the bow

That spans the cloudy sky

Becomes a symbol whence we know

That brighter days are nigh’