Our guide on how to forage for wild garlic in Britain, with a few key details regarding where it can be found, characteristics and recipe ideas
Wild garlic facts
The plant, native to Britain, is also known as Bear leek, Bear’s garlic, Broad-leaved garlic, Buckrams, Ramsons, Wood garlic and can grow to heights of between 45 and 50 cm.
The leaves and flowers are edible. Young leaves are delicious added to soups, sauces and pesto. Leaves appear in March and are best picked when young. The flowers emerge from April to June and can add a potent garlic punch to salads and sandwiches.
Add wild garlic leaves to soups, salads and pasta dishes/Credit: Getty
Health benefits of wild garlic
Used traditionally throughout Europe as a spring tonic due to its blood-purifying properties, similarly to bulb garlic, wild garlic is also thought to lower cholesterol and blood-pressure, which in turn helps to reduce the risk of diseases such as heart attack or stroke.
Other uses for wild garlic
The leaves were once boiled and the resulting liquid used as a disinfectant. Its smell is said to repel cats, so may be a good inclusion for a keen ornithologist’s garden. Despite its strong scent, wild garlic has a much mellower taste than conventional garlic. Easily confused, prior to flowering, with the similarly leaved Lily of the Valley. Best not to eat this one though, it’s poisonous.
Wild garlic, also known as ramson or bear’s garlic grows in abundance in many German forests in springtime.
Where to find wild garlic
Dense clusters of green spears thrust from the woodland floor in spring: these are ramsons, better known as wild garlic and they are a sign that the woodland you are walking in is very old.
Allium ursinum (Ramson) in bloom, close-up/Credit: Getty
Closely related to onions and garlic, ramsons similarly grow from bulbs and give off a strong and attractive garlic smell. In continental Europe, the bulbs are thought to be a favourite food of brown bears, hence the plant’s scientific name Allium ursinum (bear leek).
How to forage responsibly
Always be sure you can positively identify any plant before you pick it, and never eat any plant you are unsure of. When foraging, ensure you leave plenty for wildlife.
Here are a couple of key foraging guidelines:
– Seek permission before foraging. In certain areas, plant species will be protected so it is important to do some research and check with the landowner before you start gathering.
– Only pick from areas that have a plentiful supply. Look for areas where you can find food in abundance and then only collect a small amount for personal use. Never completely strip an area as this could damage the species and deny another forager the chance to collect.
– Leave enough for wildlife and avoid damaging habitats. Many animals rely on plants for survival, so never take more than you plan to eat as this could also deny wildlife from a valuable food source. Be mindful about wildlife habitats and avoid disturbing or damaging.
– Never pick protected species or cause permanent damage. Britain’s wild plants are all protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), which makes it illegal to dig up or remove a plant. Check the law before you forage or if in doubt, why not take part in a foraging class with an expert and learn the basics.
If you’re new to foraging then wild garlic is a great best place to start, as it’s very easy to identify, very prolific and delicious. At this time of year there is no need to buy garlic bulbs in the supermarket – their foraging counterpart can be found in any British woodland or riverbank.
Wild garlic thrives in woodlands where it can often be found in abundance/Credit: Getty
Wild garlic likes damp ground where it will grow in abundance, with hundreds of green leaves growing on a single green stem. Here is a small selection of some of the best places to see, and to smell wild garlic in the UK:
Woodland ramson (Allium ursinum), Cotswolds, Gloucestershire/Credit: Getty
What to do with wild garlic
Like the domesticated alliums, ramsons are edible and the leaves are an excellent addition to a cheese or pate sandwich. Dig up the bulbs and use like garlic, and save the flowers- they make a beautiful edible decoration to savoury dishes.
Whizzed up with walnuts, olive oil and a few tablespoons of parmesan added after, the leaves also make a delicious wild garlic pesto.
Wild garlic pesto – serve with freshly cooked pasta or spread thinly on toast/Credit: Getty
Better still, you can create a lovely spring soup from the leaves. Fry an onion in butter until soft and add a finely cubed potato and a bay leaf. After another five minutes frying, add 500ml of vegetable stock and simmer until the potato is soft –about 10 minutes. Add the bunch of ramsons leaves and cook briefly – no more than a couple of minutes. Remove the bay leaf, blend the soup, add seasoning and you will have a bowl of spring green goodness.
How to store and can you freeze wild garlic
If you plan on cooking with your newly foraged wild garlic within a day or two after collecting, then it can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge. Alternatively, pop the stem in a glass of water and put in the fridge to help stay fresh for longer.
Place wild garlic stems in a glass of water to retain freshness/Credit: Getty
Similarly to frozen fruit or vegetables, wild garlic can be frozen to preserve its freshness and nutrients. Simply, wash and dry and place in a freezer bag and freeze. Another benefit freezing wild garlic this is you can cook with wild garlic out of season.
Wild garlic recipe ideas
River Cottage chef Gill Meller has created three delicious wild garlic recipes to rustle up using your foraged finds
Cook up a wild garlic feast with River Cottage Gill Mellor’s easy recipes
I really enjoy cooking through spring and early summer. It’s a pleasure, particularly if you’ve gone out and picked a little wild garlic beforehand, and this simple breakfast or lunch dish is no exception. Big flavours and easy to find ingredients make it a pretty, reliable, no-hassle fallback.
These bhajis have become a River Cottage classic. They are cracking with a good curry or served with drinks as a little appetiser.
Pan fried pollock with ham and wild garlic
This recipe should appeal to those of you with a passion for fish cookery and the occasional woodland forage. I love using air-dried ham, which we make regularly at River Cottage, or you could use free-range or organic bacon.