Plant Portrait - Allium ursinum, Wild Garlic
It was late December when I was deciding which plants to include in this edition of the newsletter. We were in the grip of a period of very cold weather that had seen the ground frozen hard for only the second time in the seven years I have been living in Cornwall. I was walking along a country lane and my thoughts were moving longingly ahead to the spring and warmer weather. I started thinking about the first signs of the spring - for us it is the snowdrops and the wild garlic. I suddenly remembered that in no more than six weeks time I would actually be harvesting wild garlic from the banks at the side of the lane I was walking down. Suddenly, spring did not seem so far away.
Wild garlic grows abundantly in this part of Cornwall, and also in many other areas of the country. It is a plant that seldom needs to be cultivated, just give it a position in semi-shade, preferably under trees, and leave it to its own devices. It will succeed in most soils and prefers moist conditions, though it will also succeed where the soil is very wet in the winter. When given suitable conditions, it will form a dense carpet of growth and can be very invasive. The plant comes into growth in the middle to late winter, flowers in the spring and then dies down completely by the middle of summer. This allows many other plants that come into growth in spring to grow in the same space.
This is an excellent companion plant in the garden, it grows well with most plants and seems to positively affect their health and their ability to resist pests and diseases. It does not seem to grow so well with plants in the pea and bean family, however, with many gardeners noticing reduced growth and vigour in both species. It is also said to repel moles from the garden, though I am not at all sure that the moles have read the same reports, or that they would agree with them if they had!
We eat all parts of this plant in quantity when it is in season. The leaves are delicious raw or cooked and we have harvested them as early as the middle of January in mild winters. They have a distinct garlic flavour, though are milder than garlic cloves, and really add something special to a winter salad. When cooked, they are normally used as a flavouring in soups, stews etc, though we have at times used them like spinach.
As the flowers begin to open in the middle of spring, the leaves start to lose their vitality. At this time we simply switch our attention to the flowers, using them in exactly the same way as the leaves. They have a somewhat stronger flavour and make a decorative and very tasty addition to salads. The flowering heads can still be eaten as the seed pods are forming, though the flavour gets even stronger as the seeds ripen.
The bulb can also be eaten raw or cooked, and can be harvested all year round, though is best used when the plant is dormant from July to December or January. It has a fairly strong garlic flavour, though it is quite small and fiddly to harvest.
From the health perspective, wild garlic has most of the benefits of the cultivated garlic, A. sativum. It is therefore a very beneficial addition to the diet, promoting the general health of the body when used regularly. It is particularly effective in reducing high blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels. The juice of the plant has been used as a general household disinfectant.
Once you have this plant growing, you are unlikely to be without it, or to need to propagate it. However, should you want to introduce it to a new site, this is a simple thing to do. You can either harvest the seed in early summer and sow it immediately either in situ (if you have masses of the seed) or in trays in a cold frame. It usually germinates well and should produce plants large enough for harvesting in the third year of growth.
Alternatively, dig up some bulbs in the summer once the plants have died down and plant them immediately into their new site. They will be ready for harvesting from their second year of growth.
You can look at our leaflet on Perennial Onions for other interesting members of the onion family.
The database has more details on these plants: Allium sativum ophioscorodon, Allium ursinum.