Gardening: Go wild for garlic

WILD THING: The scent of onions  and a sea of white flowers.
WILD THING: The scent of onions  and a sea of white flowers.
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One woodland plant is as much as part of spring as bluebells, but tasty too. David Overend reports.

Just about everyone associates a traditional English deciduous woodland with bluebells; they appear just before the burst of new leaves above them blocks out the light.

Bluebells are a symbol of late spring, they are a constant (a faintly-perfumed constant) of all that is good and fine in our ‘wild’ woods.

But not everyone associates wild garlic with a traditional English deciduous woodland, yet to take a walk through one in May is to be assailed by an unmistakable pungency – the scent of onions – and the sight of a sea of white flowers.

Allium ursinum – also known as ramsons, buckrams, broad-leaved garlic, wood garlic, bear leek, or bear’s garlic (ursus is the Latin name for bear) – is a wild relative of chives so it’s hardly surprising that it smells so strongly.

That Latin name is down to the brown bear’s taste for the bulbs and its habit of digging up the ground to get at them; they are also a favourite of wild boar.

Ramsons are native to most of Europe, and as long as the climate is temperate, the plants will grow and spread year after year; huge colonies are common in ancient, healthy woodlands. The same applies to bluebells, so they are often found growing together.

The leaves of wild garlic are edible and can be used in salads, as a herb, even boiled as a vegetable and in soup. Unfortunately, the leaves can also be easily mistaken for those of lily of the valley, which are poisonous. Anyone thinking of harvesting the former should make sure they aren’t picking the latter.

Some people have been tempted to grow wild garlic, lifting a few bulbs (naughty!) and planting them in their own garden. But ramsons spread quickly by the production of underground bulbs and can soon become a problem – they are virtually impossible to eradicate entirely and can even survive the heat on a compost heap.

The best way to tackle unwanted growth is to use a systemic herbicide containing glyphosate. The most effective period for spraying is probably just before the plants burst into flower and by trampling or crushing the foliage with a spade before spraying, the weedkiller will be absorbed more effectively.

Wild garlic is just that – wild. Like the bluebell, leave it to grow in the woods where all the world can enjoy it.

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