wild garlic blooming in the nature

Wild Garlic – The Ultimate Guide

This post may contain affiliate links. If you choose to make a purchase through the link, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost for you.

Wild garlic is a tasty, nutritious edible plant everyone should know about. Its distinctive garlicky smell makes it impossible to miss in shady woodlands during the spring season.

In this post, I will cover all you need to know about this amazing wild edible plant – how to recognise and forage it, what are the uses and health benefits of wild garlic, where to find it and how to cook with it.

Keep reading to discover more, and stay around till the end for a few great recipes and ideas for simple meals that include wild garlic.

wild garlic in nature
Wild garlic plants in bloom, mid-April in northern Croatia.

What is wild garlic

Wild garlic (Allium ursinum L.) is a perennial bulbous flowering plant from the Amaryllidaceae family, native to Europe and Asia. It is also known as ramsons, bear’s leek and cowleek. Its leaves are long and flat, with a garlic-like smell.

This beautiful spring-blooming plant is not only edible but also super delicious, nutritious and full of health-promoting phytochemicals. The wild garlic leaves can be eaten fresh, cooked, or dried. They have a strong garlic flavour and can be used in a variety of dishes, such as soups, salads, and pestos.

While this post focuses on European wild garlic (Allium ursinum L.), there is a similar species of wild garlic that grows in the USA and Canada – known by the common name ramp (Allium tricoccum). It looks very similar and is used in the same ways. Its habitat and season are also really similar to the ones of Allium ursinum, so you can still find this article useful if you live in the USA or Canada.

wild garlic leaves on a table
Freshly picked wild garlic, ready for cooking.

Wild garlic identification and foraging

Identifying and picking wild garlic in nature is easy if you know how to recognise its habitat, main visual characteristics, and specific smell. Knowing these three things will ensure a successful forage.

Wild garlic grows in shady areas in deciduous woodlands, along forest paths and around creeks. It prefers damp ground, where it often grows abundantly, covering big patches. 

This bulbous plant is easy to recognise by its gentle, thin, flat and pointed sword-shaped leaves that grow from the plant base. The flowers of a wild garlic plant are white and star-shaped, with six petals. They grow on a long stem, in a round cluster.

wild garlic flowers
Wild garlic flowers grow in clusters on the tops of long stems.

Wild garlic leaves are usually harvested before flowering – during March and early April, while they are still young and full of nutrients. The bulbs are harvested in the autumn because that is when the plant stores all the nutrients in its below-ground parts.

To pick it flawlessly, simply snip the leaves with scissors close to the ground. This is also a good way to give attention to each individual leaf and make sure it is actually wild garlic you’re picking.

How to distinguish wild garlic from its lookalikes

It may sound silly, but there were reported cases of inexperienced foragers getting poisoned from leaves of other plants that look similar. 

One characteristic that sets them apart is the way they grow – if you observe closely, the tender wild garlic leaves grow separately, usually two separated leaves from a single bulb. Its poisonous lookalikes either have leaves in clusters or growing very close to one another (touching at the base or growing from the same stem).

Note that this is true for European ramsons, but not for North American ramps, whose leaves grow closer to one another. They are still easy to distinguish from their lookalikes once you learn how to recognise them.

A no-brainer way to be 100% sure you did in fact pick wild garlic, and not a poisonous plant, is the smell. When you pick a leaf, if you are not sure, just smell it. It should have a very distinctive, garlicky smell.

If still not sure, break the leaf in half or crush it between your fingers – now you will be able to feel the smell for sure. If there is still no smell at all, don’t eat it. I feel so funny writing this as a botanist, but really, it’s good to be careful with wild plants if this is not your field of expertise. 

young wild garlic leaves
Young wild garlic leaves, freshly picked in a forest in northern Croatia around mid-March. They are soft and tender at this time of the year, and very easy to identify because of their distinctive garlic smell.

The most common wild garlic poisonous lookalikes

Lily of the Valley vs. wild garlic

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis L.) is probably the plant that most commonly gets mistaken for wild garlic. If you don’t look that closely, its leaf shape, size, and even texture can resemble the one of wild garlic leaves.

The presence of phytochemicals called cardiac glycosides in this plant makes it potentially dangerous – if ingested in larger quantities, it can cause heart failure.

lily of the valley plants
Lily of the Valley plants growing in a shady place in a garden. The leaves may look similar to wild garlic, but these particular plants are in bloom, so there is no chance of confusing them.

This poisonous plant is often planted in gardens and backyards because of its beautiful and delicate appearance. Just like wild garlic, it usually creates populations that evenly cover the ground. Also, just like wild garlic, it grows in the shade.

Because of their similar habitat and similar appearance, these two species could be mistaken when not in bloom. Only by an inexperienced eye though! Once you learn to see the difference, it is impossible to miss.

If you are not sure, just look at the bases of their leaves. Wild garlic leaves grow separately, so each leaf grows from the ground, narrowing down towards the base – this makes it look like it has its own “stem”. Lily of the Valley plants have two leaves growing from the same stem.

lily of the valley plants
Unlike wild garlic, Lily of the Valley will have at least two leaves growing from the same stem. In this picture, you can clearly see these are Lily of the Valley plants, even without flowers.

Autumn crocus vs. wild garlic

Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale L.) is an autumn-blooming plant whose leaves also sometimes confuse wild garlic foragers. Since its crocus-like flowers are not present in spring, they cannot be the distinguishing characteristic.

Because of the presence of an alkaloid colchicine in its leaves, consuming autumn crocus can lead to poisoning.

Just like Lily of the Valley, this poisonous plant can inhabit the same type of habitat as wild garlic. For that reason, it is important to be able to recognise the differences between the two.

Even though they look similar to the wild garlic leaves in their shape and size, Colchicum leaves grow in a rosette (a circular cluster of leaves growing together at the ground), which is a very straightforward distinguishing trait.

Also, autumn crocus leaves don’t have this visibly narrower part of the leaf closer to the ground like wild garlic leaves do. Autumn crocus leaves have a more uniform width throughout their whole length, getting just slightly narrower towards the base.

Remember, the best way to know for sure if you found wild garlic is to smell it. Its garlic smell is so distinct that it clearly sets it apart from any poisonous plants that may look similar.

Wild garlic season

Young wild garlic shoots can already be seen in February, but they usually grow to the perfect size for picking towards mid-March. The picking season then lasts until mid-April. March leaves are tender, tasty and full of nutrients, so I recommend picking them young to get the best out of them.

Around mid-April, wild garlic plants are starting to bloom. This means that their leaves are getting more fibrous, chewier and less pleasant for eating. It’s not a mistake to eat wild garlic in late April, but you won’t get the same tender texture as with young leaves.

young wild garlic leaves in a forest
Young leaves of wild garlic plants that I encountered on a hike in the northern part of Croatia. This photo was taken on the 15th of March – in my opinion, the best time to pick wild garlic. The leaves are tender, nutritious, delicious and perfect for eating.

Wild garlic blossoms are edible too, so you can pick them in April and May and use them in salads and other dishes.

The bulbs are also edible, they’re not typically foraged. The season for wild garlic bulbs would be autumn, but be aware of the regulations in your country regarding digging up wild plants.

Is picking wild garlic (il)legal?

Picking wild garlic in Europe is legal, as long as you pick only the parts above the ground (its leaves and flowers) and leave the bulb underground.

In many European countries, picking above-ground parts of wild edible plants is fine (unless they are under strict categories on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species), but digging them up is not allowed.

If you do dig up the bulbs, be mindful and remember that when you do it, you completely remove that plant from its habitat. Leaves grow back, but bulbs don’t, so just don’t go wild with it (no need anyway, you don’t need a lot).

Foraging is a good opportunity to connect with nature and the food we eat, and to take just as much as we need, not more than that.

Wild garlic uses

Wild garlic is used in a variety of dishes such as soups, salads, spreads, fritters and other recipes. It is a very versatile wild edible plant and can be used in place of spring onions, young garlic shoots, leeks, chives or even as a leafy green if you don’t mind the strong garlicky taste.

Bulbs of wild garlic plants are also edible. They have a stronger flavour than the leaves though, and are more seldomly used. Wild garlic flowers are also used for food – they can be added to salads and other dishes, or pickled. I like to use them as edible food decoration too.

Wild garlic has also been used in folk medicine as a healing plant.

Health benefits of wild garlic 

Wild garlic is a good source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, potassium, and magnesium. Besides that, it’s been reported to have a number of health benefits, including boosting the immune system, reducing inflammation, and lowering blood pressure.

It has also been used in folk medicine for its antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties, as well as to help remove toxins from the body. In some cultures, it was used as a skin remedy.

Where to buy wild garlic?

If you are not able to get to a forest and pick wild garlic leaves yourself, don’t worry – you can most likely still enjoy this nutritious wild plant. During its season in Europe, there are often farmers who pick it near their farms and sell it.

I know about several organic farms like this in the UK, but I’m sure you can find it in your country too.

In Croatia where I currently live, you can often buy wild garlic from sellers at farmers’ markets. They pick the leaves in nature and bring them along with their usual seasonal produce.

wild garlic leaves on a rustic wooden table
Wild garlic that I bought from a lady at the farmers’ market in Zagreb, Croatia. These leaves are already a bit older, they were picked around mid-April. You can see it by their size but also feel that they are more fibrous and less soft than the young leaves. They were great for my recipe and tasted delicious nonetheless!

Wild garlic is usually available at farmers’ markets from late March to mid or late April. Later, the plants are in full bloom and the leaves get too chewy to eat. So use its short season to make as many delicious meals from this healthy wild plant!

If you can’t buy any fresh wild garlic from your local farmers, there are a few other options that can work for you:

  • Wild garlic bulbs and wild garlic seeds are often available for purchase and they can be delivered by mail from producers in Europe (for the native species Allium ursinum) and the USA (for Allium tricoccum), so you can plant these beautiful plants in your garden or backyard.
  • Dried wild garlic is also an option! In that case, you won’t be able to use it as a fresh vegetable, but it will be a fantastic spice to season your dishes.

Wild garlic recipes

Cooking with wild garlic is a great way to get those wonderful fresh spring flavours on your plate. This healthy and nutritious edible plant is perfect for many different dishes. I’ll list some of my favourite ones that I absolutely recommend making this spring:

  • Savoury Pancake with Wild Garlic: You have to try this crispy savoury pancake recipe with wild garlic – it’s super easy to make and a real comfort food. Works great as a snack, for dipping, or as a cool side dish.
  • Creamy Pesto with Cashews and Sunflower Seeds: This parsley and chives pesto recipe is great with wild garlic too! You can substitute the chives, or even all the greens, with wild garlic leaves. Make it as creamy or as rough as you want by adjusting the blending time.
  • Sowthistle Fritters Recipe: Check out these amazing wild sowthistle fritters – another great way to cook wild edible plants. Substitute a third or a half of the sowthistle leaves with wild garlic, or even make them with some other leafy greens of your choice.
  • Curly Kale Salad Dressing: Chop wild garlic leaves, blend them with olive oil and make the best dressing for your favourite salad. I recommend this curly kale salad recipe – it will be amazing with an additional swirl of wild garlic olive oil blend.
  • Homemade Mushroom Dumplings: Add some finely chopped wild garlic to these delicious homemade mushroom dumplings to make them even more flavourful.
  • Mushroom Bao Buns: Instead of spring onions, use wild garlic in this baozi filling recipe.
  • Flaxseed Tortillas with Vegetables: Add chopped wild garlic, or wild garlic pesto, to these amazing flourless flaxseed tortilla wraps and make them extra rich.
  • Savoury Polenta Cake: Why not make it with wild garlic? It is a real crowd-pleaser recipe, perfect for parties or family lunches.
Crispy wild garlic pancake – one of my favourite dishes with wild garlic.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *