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.
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What are the 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.
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.
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 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:
- Arnos Vale, Bristol
- The Woods at Roseberry Topping, North Yorkshire
- Gribbin Head, Cornwall
- Rampsholme Island, Derwentwater, Cumbria
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. Carefully, pick a handful of leaves without uprooting the bulbs and blend or chop and use like garlic. You can also save the flowers as 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.
View recipes for wild garlic pesto and wild garlic salt on BBC Wildlife‘s website.
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.
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.
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Wild garlic recipe ideas
River Cottage chef Gill Meller has created three delicious wild garlic recipes to rustle up using your foraged finds.
Nothing signified the change in the season to my somewhat unreactive senses like the smell of wild garlic, as its emerald spears force up through the warming earth, sweeping over shaded patches of ground like a soft carpet of new green. The smell is still with me today as real and instant as it was then, triggering my sense memories in the same way each year.
Today I use wild garlic – or ramsons as they are also known – in my cooking throughout the plant’s short season, which runs from roughly March through to late June. The best of the crop is to be picked when it is still young. As a smaller, delicate plant, the flavour is light and clean. It can even be eaten in salads at this point. Big, heavier leaves can be less interesting, although they can still be cooked or dried.
Harvesting is easy and relatively fun, particularly with children in tow. It’s such a common plant, and in some areas it is more than abundant. Look for nice, tender, bright leaves. I use my sharp penknife to cut small bunches at the base of its stalk. It is possible to harvest the bulbs as well. This tubular structure is a modified leaf stem and very similar to our everyday bulb garlic, although if there is very little wild garlic in your patch it may be worth leaving the bulb in situ.
Late on in the season, the flowers can be picked and eaten, too. They’re great in salads but you can also cook them. I’ve got a few interesting recipe ideas for these pretty white flowers in my new book, Gather, out later this year.
I’ve used wild garlic in all manner of recipes, from pesto to soup through to pastries, breads and curries. If you like garlic bread, then try chopping the leaf finely and folding through salted butter, before spreading on a thick slice of granary and toasting. I’ve included a few simple and totally delicious ways to use wild garlic in the following 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.
Make this earthy and easy wild garlic, potato and chorizo tortilla recipe – perfect for a light lunch
These bhajis have become a River Cottage classic. They are cracking with a good curry or served with drinks as a little appetiser.
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.