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.