Wild Garlic (Ramsons): Its Past and Present Uses As Food and Medicine
Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum) is a plant of shady, damp woodlands, fields and hedgerows. Peter Wyse Jackson (2014) wrote that it is found growing throughout Britain, Ireland and Europe.
Its tiny, white flowers and bright green leaves form a canopy beneath the trees in some places, while in other areas it’s quite scarce.
Mac Coitir (2015) remarked that the plant is commonplace in Irish woods, where it creates a flowering carpet of star-like, white blossoms in place of the often-seen flooring of blue bluebells.
The English naturalist William Turner knew the plant in 1548 as ramsey, bucrammes (buck rammes) and rammes.
It is also known as ‘ramson’ or ‘Ramsons’, and several places in England share its name, such as Ramsbottom (meaning ‘ramson valley’) in Lancashire and Ramsey (meaning ‘ramson island’) in Essex and Huntingdonshire.
The plant was a metaphor for bitterness in Irish folklore. There was a saying in County Donegal: “As bitter as Wild Garlic” (quoted in Mac Coitir).
Another of the plant’s common names, that of ‘bear garlic’, comes from the belief that bears ate Wild Garlic to regain their strength after a long winter’s slumber. Ursinum is Latin for ‘bear’.
Herbalpedia (2014) tells us: “Plants of the bear contain the power of renewal and purification. Specifically, they break up hardenings, warm the body and make a person ‘as strong as a bear’.”
Bear garlic was well known to the ancient Romans, Celts and Teutonic tribes as one of the oldest healing plants.
Wild Garlic is a less well-known table vegetable than its domesticated relative, but it can be used in the same way as any herb or green.
Finely chop or bruise the plant to use raw in salads and sandwiches, or boil and mix with other vegetables to make into soups and side dishes.
Gerard (1597) praised its distinctive taste: “The leaves of Ramsons be stamped and eaten of divers in the Low-countries, with fish for a sauce, even as we do eate greene-sauce made with sorrel.
The same leaves may very well be eaten in April and May with butter, of such as are of a strong constitution, and laboring men” (quoted in De Cleene and Lejeune, 2003).
The plant was an important wild edible in ancient Ireland. Jackson (2014) wrote:
“Chopped leaves add interest to salads or can be added to flavour other foods, such as stews, sauces, soup or soft cheeses and cottage cheese. The leaves can also be made into a puree with nuts, mustard leaves, olive oil and lemon juice to make a pesto that can be used with pasta or added as flavouring to stews, burgers and other meats.”
Mac Coitir tells us it was often gathered to eat raw or cooked in soup or broth. The leaves could be wrapped around lamb or fish and grilled for a mild garlic flavour, or chopped with butter and spread over French bread to make “Wild Garlic bread”.
As recently as the nineteenth century in Ireland, Wild Garlic was used to flavour butter instead of salt. It was also used to make bog butter: “Butter was wrapped in garlic and then buried in the bogs to flavour and preserve it” (Jackson, 2014).
For a quick bite, the young leaves can be eaten with bread and butter, and the flowers can be sprinkled on salads.
The wild herb was so highly valued in Ireland that, according to the Old Irish Brehon laws, there was a fine for stealing it from private land – the poacher would forfeit “two and a half milch cows”.
One wonders how the penalty of two and a half cows was paid.
François Couplan wrote in his book Le Régal Végétal in 2009 that bear (wild) garlic has been one of the most widely consumed wild plants in Europe since human history began.
It has been picked by individuals and families, sold in markets (including in France and Switzerland), and commercially marketed in the form of cheese, ravioli (agnolotti), sauces and condiments.
The food industry sources much of the plant from Eastern Europe. In Romania, the leaves of “garlic of the bears” are eaten in spring salads dressed with oil and vinegar, cooked like spinach, or made into a sour soup (‘ciorba’); in Serbia and Bosnia, the leaves and bulbs are eaten (‘srijemoé’); and in Poland, the leaves are fermented in lactic acid and called ‘Kiszonyczosnekniedzwiedzi’.
In Russia, Wild Garlic (A. ursinum) and a closely related species (A. victorialis) are used as an ingredient in a salad known as ‘cheremsha’.