By: Mary Ellen Ellis
Wild wood garlic, or Allium ursinum, is a productive, shade-loving garlic plant that you forage for in the woods or grow right in your backyard garden. Also known as ramson or ramps (different species from wild leek ramps), this wild wood garlic is easy to grow and can be used in the kitchen and medicinally.
Ramson Plant Information
What are ramsons? Ramsons are wild garlic plants that you may see during a walk in the woods. They grow well in the shade of a forest but will also grow in sun. Wild wood garlic produces pretty white flowers in the spring and edible leaves, flowers and bulbs. The leaves are best enjoyed before the plants bloom.
Not to be confused with the wild garlic often found growing in lawns, wood garlic somewhat resembles lily of the valley, in terms of its leaves. In the garden, it makes an attractive groundcover or a plant to fill in a shady area. Take care, though, around your other beds because ramsons can become invasive and spread aggressively, just as its weedy cousins.
For culinary purposes, harvest the leaves before the flowers emerge in spring. The leaves have a delicate garlic flavor that can be enjoyed raw. When cooked, rampsons lose that flavor, developing more of an onion taste instead. You can also harvest and enjoy the flowers raw too. The bulbs, when harvested, can be used like any other type of garlic. If you want the plants to come back year after year, don’t use all the bulbs.
Traditionally, ramsons have been used to stimulate digestion, as an antimicrobial agent, as a detoxing food, and to treat symptoms of respiratory illnesses, like colds and the flu. It may also be used for skin rashes and wounds.
How to Grow Ramsons
If you have the right spot for it, growing wood garlic is easy. Ramsons need well-drained, loamy soil with sun to shade. Excess moisture is one of the few problems you’ll encounter growing this wild garlic plant, so amend your soil with sand if necessary to help it drain better. Too much water can cause bulb rot.
Once established in a patch in your garden or yard, you won’t have to do anything to keep your ramsons growing. As long as you leave some of the bulbs in the ground, they will come back every year, and there are no major diseases or pests that affect them.
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Garlic : Ransoms Wild Garlic
Ramsons, Allium ursinum (also known as buckrams, wild garlic, wood garlic or bear's garlic) is a wild relative of chives in the Alliaceae (onion/garlic) family. They tend to grow mainly in swampy deciduous woodlands, being most common in areas with slightly acidic soils. They flower before the trees get their leaves and fill the air with their characteristic strong garlicky scent. Ramsons grow in marshy ground usually within woodlands. They're very common across Britain and if you come across a drift of them you will be aware of their presence long before you see them as they emit a strong garlic-like smell (hence the source of one common name: wild garlic). Ransom season is very short, however, and soon after it flowers the plant seeds itself and dies back. The entire plant is edible and the bulb can be used as a garlic substitute (if you can get seed and you have a shady spot in your garden this is an excellent plant to grow). However, the plan't true glory is it's leaves which can be used raw in a salad. They are also excellent when finely shredded and mixed into an omelette. They can also be boiled and made into a kind of pesto-like pâté.
Amaryllidaceae Allium sativum
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• With its low-key palette and structure, wild garlic covers areas of shaded ground with great style. It can look smart bordering a driveway, or the edge of a property.
• Wild garlic flowers over a long period, from April to June. Its early appearance is appreciated by pollinating insects.
• Allium ursinum deserves closer inspection: with its six-petaled flowers, growing in clusters on leafless stalks, wild garlic is more similar to decorative garden alliums than first appears.
Above: Wild garlic in a British wood.
Keep It Alive
• Away from flower beds, where it can wreak havoc, Allium ursinum takes care of itself and crowds out other weeds.
• A wood of beech trees is typical of the kind of place where wild garlic thrives: a light canopy in spring followed by a more dense covering in summer keeps the bulbs cool. Slightly acid soil is preferred.
• Dig bulbs out of flower borders, and keep digging every year do not add them to compost as they’ll only wait to be distributed around the garden.
Above: Wild garlic mingling with bluebells in a beech wood.
Yesterday I sang the praises of an orchid, today I am waxing lyrical about an onion, or a garlic to be precise. Monday’s Spring Flower Candy is a complete contrast to pretty Pleione formosana, although both plants grow from bulbs and enjoy a moist woodland environment. My subject is Allium ursinum, better known as ramsons, stinking Jenny or wild garlic, the ephemeral herb that’s responsible for filling ancient English woodlands with a mildly oniony scent throughout the month of April. When happy it produces a continuous blanket of emerald green leaves as far as the eye can see.
As usual the latin name gives away something about this wild plant: ‘ursine’ means ‘related to bears’ and this refers to our furry friends’ liking for digging up the bulbs whilst out hunting. Thankfully we haven no bears left to compete with when we go foraging. Wild boars are also partial to a little wild garlic, so the latin name might just as easily have been Allium porcinum. Bears clearly have good taste as the newly emerged leaves are delicious, especially lightly steamed and dripping with butter. They are also tasty stirred into a pasta dish, made into pesto or used as a replacement for chives in omelettes, soups and stuffings. In Switzerland cows were once fed with wild garlic in order to impart a garlicky flavour in their milk. This was then made into a savoury butter. The leaves are not in the least bit coarse, withering and disappearing beneath ground again before they have a chance to toughen up.
I find wild garlic pretty easy to identify, especially once the little heads of white flowers (also edible) start to emerge, but care should be taken when collecting leaves in the wild. Cases of poisoning have been reported as a result of mistaken identity – sometimes for arum lilies and sometimes for lily of the valley, both of which are toxic and like the same conditions. The smell of garlic is something of a give-away so, if in doubt, rub the leaves and that will confirm if you have the right plant. Always pick over the leaves and give them a thorough wash before cooking.
If you want to be sure, and have the right conditions to grow your own, seeds are available from Chiltern Seeds. The BBC Food website suggests a range of recipes that harness the delicate flavour of wild garlic, including honey and za’atar glazed spring lamb with salsify and wild garlic purée, and king crab with asparagus, wild garlic and hazelnuts. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. Wild garlic is a seasonal treat that can rarely be bought, so don your wellies, seek it out and give it a try. Happy foraging.