By Sarah Watson, forager
If you’ve caught an oniony waft while passing through woodland, you’ll know wild garlic, otherwise known as ramsons, is in season. This flavoursome wild green that often grows in abundance is eagerly awaited by foragers – and there’s so much you can do with it!
I’ve listed some cooking ideas and recipes in this post, as well as identification and harvesting tips – so there’s no need to miss out on this wonderful wild harvest!
The young leaves of this onion-family UK native (Allium ursinum) are tender and silky with a delicious garlicky, peppery flavour that’s more delicate than cultivated, raw garlic. It grows over most of lowland UK, often in dense swathes, in deciduous woods, woodland edges, on stream banks and shaded hedgerows and verges, preferring rich, damp soils.
Bright green wild garlic shoots can appear as early as January or February, with the season starting in earnest in March and continuing until around May for the leaves, and June for the seedpods.
From April the long, pointed, spear-shaped leaves are topped with a haze of pretty, starry six-petalled white flowers arranged in ‘umbels’ with three-sided stems (triangular in cross-section).
There’s some evidence we may have been eating wild garlic since the Stone Age – little wonder as it’s so good for us! In today’s cuisine, raw leaves are used in salads, mayonnaise, dressings and herb butters – scroll down for my recipes for wild garlic dip and wild garlic and nettle pesto, including a vegan version.
The leaves can be preserved by lacto-fermentation (I use this simple method by forager Robin Harford) which alters their flavour profile somewhat, but the ferment still packs a punch. Fresh leaves can be infused to make flavoured vinegar, or shredded to use in all sorts of recipes, such as risottos, curries, pasta dishes, mash, omelettes, stir-fries, stews, sauces, soups, and to stuff meat or fish. Wild garlic is great in savoury bakes too: bread, scones, muffins, oatcakes…the possibilities are endless – I’ve even used it in savoury cocktails!
The pretty flowers are also edible, try them fried in a light tempura batter, or use them as a decorative, savoury garnish. The green flower buds and the hot, peppery, little seed pods (before they develop a hard seed) can be pickled to make wonderfully garlicky ‘capers’.
Wild garlic leaves keep well in a bag in the fridge for a few days. I find the flavour stronger before flowering, and cooking reduces the potency because the leaves’ volatile oils evaporate quickly, leaving them much milder and sweeter. So for maximum flavour, add them in the last minute or so of cooking.
As wild garlic often grows in damp places, the leaves can be gritty, so wash them well in several changes of water. If you’re serving raw leaves and are concerned about bacteria in soil (it’s mostly good but some can be harmful), my tip is to soak the leaves in a 1:10 vinegar to water solution for a couple of minutes, which should be enough to neutralise any baddies.
Not only is this foragers’ favourite delicious, it’s also super-healthy! Wild garlic contains high levels of vitamins A and C, as well as minerals including calcium and potassium. Studies have shown that wild garlic contains more magnesium, manganese and iron and than cultivated garlic.
Wild garlic and smoked mackerel canape rolls with cuckoo flowers
(made & photographed by Bethan Davies)
The leaves especially are a source of potentially potent antioxidants which could help protect against cancer and support the immune system. Recent Romanian research concluded that the antioxidant level appears to be highest in the raw leaf within the first few hours of processing.
Wild garlic contains ‘uridine’ which may be mood-lifting and good for brain health, according to studies, especially when paired with fish oils – fortuitous then that wild garlic goes so well with mackerel! The fresh plant has been shown to have antibacterial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties, and it contains antiviral plant lectins. It’s also said to be a digestive tonic, perhaps that’s because it acts as a prebiotic, promoting the growth of good gut bacteria.
Wild garlic leaves are typically rich in sulphur compounds which protect the heart. In comparative trials, wild garlic proved more effective than cultivated garlic in reducing blood pressure and LDL cholesterol in rats, while raising HDL cholesterol levels.
Cuckoo pint growing amongst wild garlic
Wild garlic could be confused with a few poisonous plants. Cuckoo Pint or Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum) is a common plant that often grows amongst wild garlic. It burns the mouth due to the oxalates it contains and could make the throat swell and obstruct breathing. So pick each wild garlic leaf individually care, checking as you go.
Cuckoo Pint has arrow-head shaped leaves, although be aware that the two pointed ‘tails’ on either side of the leaf stalk may not be developed when the leaves are young. The leaf veins of cuckoo pint are arranged in a ‘network’, whereas the veins of wild garlic are parallel – and wild garlic leaves have a distinctive garlic smell, of course.
The leaves of highly poisonous Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis) look similar to wild garlic, but there are two leaves per stalk growing from the rhizome, whereas wild garlic only has a single leaf on each stalk arising from the bulb. The less widespread but deadly Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale) produces its leaves in spring too, but they’re thicker and glossier, more like a garden hyacinth.
When picking wild garlic, take only as much as you need and spread your harvest by taking a leaf or two from each plant, minding your step as some woodland plants, such as native bluebells, are sensitive to trampling. Wild garlic flowers are an early nectar source for butterflies and bees, so take care not to take too many from one spot.
The plant is an ‘ancient woodland’ indicator species, which means if it’s found along with enough other indicator plants, which include rowan, yellow archangel, wood sorrel, snowdrops and wood anemones, there’s a good chance the woodland is over 400 years old.
Although they’re edible, I don’t take wild garlic bulbs from the wild as it’s illegal to uproot plants without the landowner’s permission, it prevents the plant from regenerating and they’re small and fiddly to clean. In the right conditions, wild garlic can be persuaded to grow in some gardens, but beware as it can get quite invasive.
Wild garlic flower buds
Always use good identification books to identify your foraged finds to 100% certainty before eating them – if in doubt, leave it out! And if you’re still not sure exactly what to look for, come on a foraging course with an expert.
Discover more about identifying and cooking with wild edible plants on a Wild Feast foraging & cookery course. Get wild food and drink tips and updates on course dates on Facebook, or sign up for my e-newsletter (option to unsubscribe at any time).
Wild Garlic & Nettle Pesto recipe
Raw wild garlic can be pretty overpowering, but earthy nettle is the ideal partner to tone it down, making a perfectly punchy, super-healthy pesto! You can keep this in the fridge for a couple of weeks and it also freezes well. For me, pesto is a very personal thing, so do adjust my recipe proportions to your own taste.
Makes approx. one 200g small jar
- 4-5 tbsps mild olive oil
- 40g fresh, wild garlic leaves
- 40g fresh nettle tips (top 2-6 leaves), picked before flowering
- 40-60g nuts (e.g. pine nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, or a mix)
or you could substitute sunflower or pumpkin seeds
- 30g parmesan, grana padano or similar strong, hard cheese, finely grated
[vegan version: substitute 1 tbsp nutritional yeast flakes]
- 2 tsps white wine vinegar
- 1 lemon, juiced
- ground black pepper
Pick over and wash the wild garlic leaves well and chop roughly. Wash the nettle leaves wearing gloves, and then steam them for a minute or two, or blanch them briefly in boiling water – cooking them denatures the sting. You can use them raw, but you need to blend them really well to make sure they don’t sting.
Once cooled, squeeze out excess water from the nettle leaves (the nettle water makes a great soup stock) and chop them roughly. Meanwhile dry fry the nuts or seeds in a pan, or toast in the oven, until pale golden brown.
Whizz all the leaves in a blender with half the lemon juice, the vinegar and enough of the olive oil to loosen the mix. Add 40g nuts (or for the vegan version, add an extra 20g to make it up to 60g and nutritional yeast)*, process until smooth enough for your liking and stir in the grated hard cheese. Then stir in the remaining olive oil as needed, the rest of the lemon juice to taste, and season with salt and ground pepper.
Serve with pasta, potatoes, soups, toast, crackers, breadsticks, fish, shellfish, meat, as garlic bread…or straight from the jar!
Be aware that there’s a risk of botulism with unpasteurised, fresh plant material stored in oil. To be on the safe side, I recommend storing home-made pesto in the fridge and using it within two weeks.
*Note the vegan version of the pesto comes out paler green than the non-vegan pesto in the photo due to the extra nuts and the colour of the nutritional yeast.
Wild Garlic Dip
You don’t need much wild garlic to make this simple and deliciously moreish, garlicky dip, popular with both kids and adults, but not especially breath-friendly for entertaining! If you’ve made wild garlic pesto, you could stir that into cream cheese to make an even quicker, convenient version of this dip.
Makes a small ramekin-full
- 120g cream cheese (a light version if you prefer)
- fresh wild garlic leaves, a small handful
- 2 tbsps crème fraiche or sour cream (optional)
- 1 tbsp (approx) finely grated parmesan, grana padano or strong cheddar
- 1/2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
- salt, wild herb salt or celery salt
- ground black pepper
Pick over and wash the wild garlic leaves well and chop roughly. Whizz them in a blender with the cream cheese and the grated hard cheese until the mixture is smooth and pale green – add just a few to start with, blend and add more to taste if desired. Stir in the crème fraiche or sour cream, then the lemon juice, salt and ground pepper to taste.
Serve with breadsticks, crudités, or whatever takes your fancy.