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wild garlic, bear garlic, ramsons

Allium ursinum

If I could only choose one single plant to forage, it would have to be our native wild garlic, Allium ursinum, the bear garlic or ramsons.  I grew up collecting Allium ursinum with my family, and the gorgeously green and fragrant  soup we made from it was a childhood favourite and is equally beloved by my children now. 

Historically, this healthy and very early spring vegetable has played an important role in supplying people with fresh green food after the winter months.  The pungent leaves are packed with vitamin C, beta-carotene, iron, potassium, vitamin B1, B6 and other trace elements and have been found to have been utilised as food and medicine at least since the Mesolithic era, almost ten thousand years ago, with frequent mentions since by Romans, Celts, and Germanic tribes, throughout the dark and middle ages, and all the way up to now.  Wherever ramsons grow, they are highly priced and harvested and have found their way into the cuisines of every country in Europe. 

After a mild winter, Allium ursinum will begin poking its tender green shoots through the dark forest floor by Candlemass/Imbolc, the old beginning of early spring on February 2nd.  By March, the forest floors will be carpeted in its delicate leaves and by Beltane the plants will be covering the woods with a starry white foam of flower umbels.  After the bloom, the leaves will yellow and wilt and after the seedpods ripen, the plant will vanish into its underground bulb until next spring.  Wild garlic prefers damp areas in ancient woodlands, but can often also be found along canals and in shady gardens and parks.  To sustainable harvest this locally abundant wild crop, take less than a third of the leaves of each plant and avoid pulling up the bulbs.  Ramsons can be eaten raw or cooked, and are edible in all parts,  while the young pre-bloom leaves are the most commonly harvested, the flower buds, green seed pods and flower and leaf stems are all delicious too, and can be used as a substitute for chives, garlic, leek, and spring onions from February through May.

For the beginning forager, there are three toxic species to consider when collecting Allium ursinum.  All three share the lanceate leaf shape, the woodland habitat, and the early spring growth of bear garlic.  None, however, have the beautiful delicate garlic scent of wild garlic, so smell is the first sense to employ when identifying Allium ursinum.  However, since the three toxic species can grow interspersed with wild garlic plants, other details need to be taken into consideration, too.  Lily of the valley, Convallaria majalis, has harder leaves which are glossy on top and on the bottom, and can grow in pairs out of the same stem.  Naked ladies, Colchicum autumnale and Colchicum speciosum, also have harder leaves which are glossy on both sides and have no stem.  Cuckoo pint, Arum maculatum, have differently shaped leaves with two points at the side of the stem, and a leaf vein tracing the outline of the entire leaf.  If in doubt, begin collecting wild garlic later in spring when the leaves are fully shaped and when the plants are already in flower, making identification easy.

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