When I visited my grandmother in Germany, she introduced me to wild garlic. Or also known as ramsons or bear leek. It is referred to as wild garlic due to its similar garlicky smell and taste. Although the whole plant is actually edible, people usually tend to just use the aromatic leaves. Sadly, this delicious wild herb has a short harvest time during the spring season, so it is always a good idea to preserve it for later. Some tasty ways to preserve wild garlic is to make wild garlic butter, wild garlic oil, drying it or my favorite variant is by making a wild garlic pesto!
What is wild garlic?
Wild garlic (scientifically it is known as Allium ursinum) is native to Europe and parts of Britain. It usually grows in sparse forests and often forms large stocks as far as the eye can see. Wild garlic isn’t a new herb. It has been around for ages, known as a homeopathic medicinal herb. It contains high levels of magnesium and has blood purifying and digestive effects.
Once you are able to safely identify wild garlic and distinguish it from poisonous doubles, foraging goes quickly and can be quite fun. I absolutely enjoy collecting wild garlic when I know where to find a patch. But how can you know the difference between wild garlic and its poisonous doubles?
How to identify wild garlic?
The most important rule when collecting wild plants is to identify the plants on-site! Once your leaves are in the basket it is much more difficult to tell the plants apart.
The main characteristic of wild garlic is its unique intense garlic-like smell. If you are close to a wild garlic field you can usually already smell a hint of garlic in the air. Once you rub the leaves between your fingers it will emanate this intense garlic scent. If the leaves do not give off this scent then it isn’t wild garlic and avoid it. The downside of rubbing the leaves between your fingers is that the smell stays on your fingers and will make distinguishing by smell difficult. So you will have to look for other characteristic differences.
Wild garlic is a bulbous plant that has a compact stem triangular to almost round and has mostly two, rarely one or three broad oval-shaped, parallel-veined basal leaves with a long stalk, which is clearly pronounced when the leaves are fully grown. The top of the leaves are shiny and a darker green than the dull underside. The flowering period extends from April to May, producing hermaphrodite white star-shaped flowers with radial symmetry.
Now while you cannot find Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum) in the USA, you can find its close relative, Ramps (Allium triccocum) in the eastern United States and eastern Canada. They are quite similar in taste, texture and looks, however, Allium triccocum starts flowering in June and July once the leaves have died. Ramps is quite popular in the US and there are still a few ramps festivals held in some parts of the US. Unfortunately, due to its popularity and over-harvesting, ramps has made it onto the list of endangered plants, and foraging after wild ramps has been banned. If you want to make a dish using ramps, you need to find a local farm that grows and sells it. Or take a trip to Germany during the spring season 😉
Beware of poisonous doubles!!!
Wild garlic is often confused with Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) as its leaves are also broadly oval-shaped. Distinguishing features are the shiny underside of the leaves, the two to three leaves that emerge from the same stem, the rhizome-like roots or the white bell-shaped flowers that usually only begin to flower mid of April. This species is invasive in parts of North America, however, the Convallaria majalis variety montana, is a native species.
The autumn cocus (Colchicum autumnale) is the second most common confusion. However, unlike wild garlic, it forms its flowers in autumn and only develops its leaves in spring. Its leaves are oblong-oval shaped and grown sessile from a rosette and like the lily of the valley, its underside is shiny. While native to Europe it has become naturalized in some parts of the US and Canada.
When foraging for wild garlic either in the US or in Europe, you have to be absolutely sure what you pick. Consuming a poisonous double can be fatal.
If you’re not 100% sure it’s Wild Garlic or Ramps, don’t pick it. Better go to a farmers market and buy some there.
Wild garlic pesto with Pasta
Wild garlic pesto has a strong unique and intense taste and goes well with many pasta dishes. You can even use it to create a perfect vinaigrette, a dip, or as spread on toast. Basically, if you love it you can use it for whatever dish you wish.
Ingredients (4 servings)
- 1 bundle of wild garlic
- ¼ cup Olive oil
- 2 tablespoons of cashews and pine nuts
- 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
- Salt to taste
- 1 lb (500g) pasta noodles – Cook pasta according to your liking
- Roast nuts in a pan.
- Add all ingredients to a food processor and pulse until a nice and creamy consistency is achieved.
- Add water to smoothen the consistency if the pesto is still too thick.
- Store in an airtight container and refrigerate.
A vegan pesto can be kept in the fridge for up to 2 weeks. Just be sure to have enough oil covering the pesto. As wild garlic is seasonal you can also stock up and store it in your freezer.
Try out this creamy basil-avocado pesto