By Sarah Watson, forager
The foraging season never really ends as there are always edible hardy plants to be found. From November to early spring, the leaves of three-cornered leek (Allium triquetrum) are tender and full-flavoured. It’s more subtle than brown onions, being a little leeky, with a smidgeon of spring onion and a cheeky hint of chive. When cooked it becomes milder and sweeter, so for maximum flavour eat young leaves raw, or add them near the end of cooking and wilt briefly.
Three-cornered leek is a Mediterranean plant introduced to the West Country in the 19th Century. It has naturalised widely in hedgerows, parks, field margins, verges and waste ground in southern England and the east coast of Ireland. It prefers a milder climate and is generally less widespread north of Oxford and in western Ireland, but can be found in scattered locations in the British Isles further north to St Andrews.
An invasive plant, albeit a pretty one, it’s an offence to plant it (or otherwise cause it to grow) in the wild in the UK. It spreads easily (mainly via ants dispersing the seeds) and can become dominant where it grows, crowding out other spring wild flowers like bluebells and primroses. So eat it with abandon, pick the flowers, pickle the seed pods!
Three-cornered leek is easy to identify, the leaves look a bit like grass or bluebells (although bluebells are poisonous), they’re strap-like with a ‘keel’ projecting from the centre of the underside, making them triangular in cross-section – hence ‘three-cornered’. The real giveaway is the onion smell when they’re bruised.
The flowerhead stem is also triangular in cross-section, and the bell-like flowers appear in March or April, looking for all the world like white bluebells, but with a narrow green stripe down the centre of each of the six petals. The flowerhead grows in an ‘umbel’ with a cluster of several fine flower stems arising from one point like the spokes of an umbrella. Be careful not to confuse three-cornered leek with summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum) or snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), both of which have white and green flowers in winter or spring, and are poisonous.
As an Allium, three-cornered leek contains the goodness of onions in the sulphur compounds that can help reduce cholesterol, protect the circulatory system and which have anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties; as well as containing saponins and flavonoids, potential antioxidants and anti-cancer agents.
I use the leaves like chives, spring onions or leeks – chopped in mash, blended with butter on new potatoes or steak, in a pesto, in soups and in tarts. While young and tender, the chopped leaves are great raw in salads or home-made coleslaw. The juicy edible flowers make an attractive onion-y garnish for savoury dishes and salads. The flower buds make a pretty pickle in hot, spiced vinegar, and the seed pods pickle well too, but catch them early before the seeds harden! Try this recipe.
For young, fresh leaves, try my tasty three-cornered leek guacamole – recipe below.
Always use good identification books to identify your foraged finds to 100% certainty before eating them – if in doubt, leave it out!
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Three-cornered Leek Guacamole
I can’t get enough of fresh-flavoured, healthy guac, and three-cornered leek is a perfect ingredient for it as raw onion and garlic can overpower the delicate taste of avocado.
2 ripe avocados.
1 ripe, flavoursome tomato.
Handful well-washed three-cornered leek leaves/bulbs (2-4 tbsp).
1 fresh green chilli.
1 tbsp sour cream (optional).
Juice of half a lime.
0.5 tsp white wine vinegar.
Few dashes of tabasco.
Ground black pepper.
Finely chop the three-cornered leek and the fresh chilli. Finely dice the tomato, removing the seeds. Mash the flesh of one avocado and dice the flesh of the other.
Tip these ingredients into the bowl reserving enough chopped three-cornered leek leaves to garnish. Add the lime juice, vinegar, tabasco and sour cream (if using), mix then season with salt and pepper.
If not serving straight away, cover with cling film pressed right onto the surface of the guac (to help prevent it oxidising and going brown), and refrigerate until needed.
Serve scattered with the remaining three-cornered leek leaves, with tortilla chips or nachos, or as an ingredient in tacos or burritos.