Evidence for humans' use of wild garlic stretches back 12,000 years and it remains as appealing today as it was to ancient civilisations. This lush spring green is renowned not only for its fresh, garlic flavour but also its remarkable medicinal potential.
Wild garlic (Allium ursinum), also known as ramsons, is often a gateway plant into the world of foraging. Its draw is easily understood: it’s a culinary treat that grows in abundance and is a joy to pick, nestling in green, shady woods among other moisture-loving plants like the bluebell.
Its specific epithet ursinum means bear, which is a common epithet for plants across Eurasian languages. This reflects the bear’s importance in folk traditions, where they were often seen as as wise “medicine animals”. As browsing omnivores, they were thought to have superior knowledge of plants and foods, from which humans would often take guidance (Kolosova et al., 2017). Allium ursinum is known colloquially as bear garlic, bear leek or bear onion across at least 20 European languages, including Hungarian, Turkish, Ukranian, Polish, Italian, German, Serbo-Croat, Russian, Estonian, Danish and Albanian (Kolosova et al., 2017).
Folk tales suggest the name comes from bears’ tendency to consume wild garlic to remove toxins from the body and regain strength after awakening from hibernation (Rejewski, 1996). This activity has only been reported anecdotally though and the relationship between bears and wild garlic could simply be attributed to their emergence at the same point in the spring. Either way, the association is an old one, as the plant was first given the name “bear’s onion” by the ancient Greeks (Kolosova et al., 2017).
Its other folk name, ramsons, comes from the Saxon word “hramsa” but there is evidence that use of this plant is far older, as charred remnants of wild garlic bulbs were discovered at a late Mesolithic settlement in Denmark (Kubiak-Martens, 2002). It was known to the early Celts and ancient Romans, who allegedly referred to it as herba salutaris, the healing herb, although the 17th century General History of Plants uses this term in reference to the similar-sounding Rams Thorn instead (Gerard & Johnson, 1633). Wild garlic’s medicinal uses were certainly recorded by the Greek physician Dioscorides (c. AD 40- 90), who considered it detoxifying, while the Emperor Charlemagne (AD 747 – 814) included it in his directory of medicinal plants, Capitulare de Villis imperialibis (Sobolewska et al., 2015).
Faith in wild garlic’s general health benefits was also preserved in the old English proverb:
Eat leeks in Lide [March] and ramsons in May
And all the year after the physicians may play
Recent research has backed up this folk wisdom, as the plant has been shown to have antimicrobial, cytotoxic, antioxidant, and cardio-protective effects (Sobolewska et al., 2015). It has particular applications for cardiovascular diseases, as well as a recognised affect in wound healing. The latter can be attributed to the sulphur-containing compounds, common to alliums, which also give the leaves their distinct garlic smell. Wild garlic has been shown to have cardio-protective capabilities in rats, lowering blood pressure; reducing cholesterol synthesis and lowering plasma ACE activity (Rietz et al.,1993; Preuss et al., 2001). Furthermore, a component of wild garlic’s volatile oil, diallyl disulfide, can inhibit human cancer cell proliferation, including in breast, lung, colon cancers, lymphomas and neuroblastomas (Lai et al. 2012).
A choice culinary leaf
For most of us though, the primary attraction of this powerfully-scented plant lies in its culinary appeal. Like most alliums, all of the plant is edible and can be eaten raw or cooked. The flower buds are often pickled, while a favourite use for the leaves is to blend them with oil and pine nuts or walnuts into a pesto, although they can also be wilted into various dishes such as soups, pastas and risottos. It also features in some regional delicacies. The Cornish cheese yarg has a variation which is wrapped in wild garlic leaves, as opposed to nettle, while records suggest that in 19th century Switzerland, a form of “garlic” butter was made from the milk of cows that had been fed the plant (Sobolewska et al., 2015). In Eberbach in Germany there is an annual festival called Bärlauchtage (Bear’s Garlic Days), which is devoted entirely to appreciation of this allium (Eberbach Stadt, n.d.)
Wild garlic’s season stretches from around early March until June. It prefers damp and shady conditions, typically in open, deciduous woodland near rivers and streams. It begins to emerge before the trees are in leaf, to make use of the additional light before the canopy closes in. Later in the spring, the trees protect the wild garlic from direct sunlight and help retain moisture in the topsoil (Soboleska et al., 2015). The plant is best foraged before too
many flowers emerge, as after this the leaves can become tougher and more bitter.
While the presence of emerging bears isn’t something that we have to worry about while foraging in the UK, it is worth being aware of wild garlic’s two poisonous lookalikes. Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis), whose cardiac glycosides make it potentially deadly, can look very similar before the plants have flowered. Wild garlic grows only one leaf per stem, with the leaves emanating from the base of the plant, however, whereas lily of the valley leaves typically grow in pairs. Most importantly, wild garlic can be identified by its distinctive smell — it’s best to rely on your nose as much as your eyes when foraging this allium. The other possible lookalike is Arum maculatum, also known as cuckoo pint and lords and ladies, although this has glossier, rounded arrow-shaped leaves. Once wild garlic is in bloom is can easily be distinguished by its small, six-petalled, white flowers which grow in umbels.
Eberbach Stadt. (n.d.). Bärlauchtage.
Gerard, J. & Johnson, T. (1633). The Herbal or General History of Plants. Vol 5, Book 3.
Kolosova, V., Svanberg, I., Kalle, R., Strecker, L., Özkan, A. M., Pieroni, A., Cianfaglione, K., Molnár, Z., Papp, N., Łuczaj, Ł., Dimitrova, D., Šeškauskaitė, D., Roper, J., Hajdari, A., & Sõukand, R. (2017). The bear in Eurasian plant names: motivations and models. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 13(1), 14.
Kubiak-Martens, L. (2002). New evidence for the use of root foods in pre-agrarian subsistence recovered from the late Mesolithic site at Halsskov, Denmark. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, 11(1-2), 23–32.
Lai, K. C., Kuo, C. L., Ho, H. C., Yang, J. S., Ma, C. Y., Lu, H. F., Huang, H. Y., Chueh, F. S., Yu, C. C., & Chung, J. G. (2012). Diallyl sulfide, diallyl disulfide and diallyl trisulfide affect drug resistant gene expression in colo 205 human colon cancer cells in vitro and in vivo. Phytomedicine: International Journal of Phytotherapy and Phytopharmacology, 19(7), 625–630.
Preuss, H. G., Clouatre, D., Mohamadi, A., & Jarrell, S. T. (2001). Wild garlic has a greater effect than regular garlic on blood pressure and blood chemistries of rats. International Urology and Nephrology, 32(4), 525–530.
Rejewski, M. (1997). Pochodzenie łacińskich nazw roślin polskich: przewodnik botaniczny. Wiadomości Botaniczne, 41(2).
Rietz, B., Isensee, H., Strobach, H., Makdessi, S., & Jacob, R. (1993). Cardioprotective actions of wild garlic (allium ursinum) in ischemia and reperfusion. Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry, 119(1-2), 143–150.
Sobolewska, D., Podolak, I., & Makowska-Wąs, J. (2015). Allium ursinum: botanical, phytochemical and pharmacological overview. Phytochemistry Reviews: Proceedings of the Phytochemical Society of Europe, 14(1), 81–97.
Always stay safe when foraging. You need to be 100% sure of your identification, 100% sure that your foraged item is edible, and 100% sure that you are not allergic to it (it is good practice to always try a small amount of any new food you are consuming). If in doubt, leave it out!