Wild garlic/Ramsons – Edibility, Identification, Distribution

Allium ursinum

  • Edibility – 4
  • Identification – 3
  • Distribution – 4
  • Season – February – June (Roots all year)
  • Habitat – Shady hedgerows and open woodland

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Along with wood sorrel, wild garlic has been at the forefront of the renaissance in wild foods in recent years. It isn’t hard to work out why: it is easy to find, delicious, and fairly straightforward to identify.

Its crowded ranks of sleek, lanceolate leaves can carpet large expanses of woodlands, filling them with nodding white starburst flowers and the smell of garlic. We have a small mountain in Galloway named Garlick Hill – unfortunately, now given over to plantation forest – which I assume must have been blanketed in it once.

As you might expect of the allium family (which includes onions, garlic, leeks etc), the flavour is a delightful combination of garlic and spring onions. Early shoots, like most wild greens, are the most pungent – though never too overpowering. The flavour mellows and texture coarsens as the season goes on and pass their best once they flower. The flowers are also edible, and make the finest natural garnish I could possibly imagine.  When they turn to seed you can eat them too, and when the whole plant has yellowed, withered and died by July, you can dig up the small bulbs! But don’t expect them to be the size of cultivated – or even wild crow – garlic.

Ramsons – to use their more poetic name – are versatile in the kitchen. Their pungency works well in a variation on pesto, and you can make it extra wild if you use pig nuts or hazelnuts. The broad leaves can be used to wrap and layer – I have successfully used it to make dolmades and sushi rolls. It is possible to make excellent sauces and soups, but the oils that give ramsons their allium flavour are highly volatile and soon lost during cooking. I have come across too many misguided chefs bragging about their use of wild garlic, who have cooked every last vestige of taste out of it. Only ever add during the last few seconds of cooking.

I said ramsons are fairly straightforward to identify as there are a couple of potential traps waiting for foragers who get over-confident or slap-dash in their picking. The worst (and hopefully most unlikely) mistake would be to gather a couple of early basal leaves of foxglove while picking carelessly. It is not that the leaves are particularly similar (thick, hairy and serrated rather than thin, sleek and smooth), just that they can grow in amongst ramson patches where coarse foragers may be tempted to tear up indiscriminate armfuls. Read more about this here. Much more similar are Lilly of the Valley, Autumn Crocus and Lords and Ladies. Non have the distinct scent of garlic, but as ramsons become the wild food of the masses, there will almost certainly be incidents in years to come.

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One Response to “Wild garlic/Ramsons – Edibility, Identification, Distribution”

  1. Great article. one of my favourite wild foods. The flowers are a lovely addition to salads and the early leaves are available as early as janurary. A great addition to muscles and your spot on when you talk about adding them at the last minute. dont wanna miss out on the flavour. They also keep really well in the fridge. bang them in a ziplock fridge bag and they really do keep for weeks. nice one Mark!

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