Wild Garlic

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wild garlic is a name which should apply to plants of true garlic, Allium sativum, growing in the wild; but in practice it is used of other plants in the genus which do grow in the wild and do possess at least some garlic-like characteristics.

In Britain the most important species to which the name applies is A. ursinum, also known as ‘bear’s garlic’ (a name echoed in other languages) and more fittingly as ramsons. This name comes from hramsan, the plural of the Old English hramsa; so, as Geoffrey Grigson (1955) points out, ramsons is a double plural. Yet other names include badger’s garlic, devil’s garlic (cf. the Swiss Teufelsknoblauch), gypsy’s onions (cf. the German Zigeuner Knoblauch), and a quartet of hostile names from Somerset: snake’s food, stinking Jenny, stinking lilies, and onion stinkers.

Wild garlic has its merits. Grigson comments:

Not to be despised, these white stars and viridian leaves because of a garlic smell. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of a wood ‘curled all over with bright green garlic’ (in his journal in 1871), and in blossom or leaf Ramsons is one of the most beautiful floorings. Gerard wrote that in the Low Country fish sauce was made from the leaves, which ‘maye very well be eaten in April and Maie with butter, of such as are of a strong constitution, and labouring men.’

Europe has other species which may be called wild garlic. A. vineale (also known as field garlic, ail des vignes in French) is too strong for most tastes, although the tops of the young leaves, in spring, can be added to a green salad.

Caroline Conran (2012) finds wild garlic for sale in SW France early in the season and advises that the leaves should be picked before the plant flowers as they become too strong thereafter. The leaves can be added to an omelette or tortilla, or included in soup or stew. A pesto can be made from them or, as they do in Russia, they can be salted and used in a salad (with cucumber).

In N. America, wild garlic is called ramp and could indicate any of several species, but is most often used for A. canadense, whose other common names are Canada onion and meadow leek. This species has sweet and palatable bulbs and also bears clusters of bulbils at the flower head. These clusters can be pickled entire to make an attractive relish. The plants as a whole may be cooked like leeks. Gibbons (1962) provides both praise and cooking instructions.

More ‘wild garlics’ occur in S. Africa, in the form of Tulbaghia spp, whose bulbs are usually too strong for kitchen use but whose leaves have a good garlicky flavour.

See also hedge garlic.