Foraging for wild garlic means you can enjoy using this delicious and versatile woodland plant in your home kitchen. However, it comes with risks as there are potentially poisonous doppelgangers out there. Learn how to safely identify wild garlic with our simple guide.
Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) is a tasty and healthy springtime treat that grows in abundance across the country. Foraging for the plant is a popular pastime, but you do need to know how to identify wild garlic and recognise it from its dangerous lookalikes, lily-of-the-valley and autumn crocus.
Where does wild garlic grow?
Wild garlic is a very common and widespread sight across the UK in spring, with its white star-shaped flowers seen in swathes throughout woodlands and areas of dappled shade. If you wonder ‘where does wild garlic grow and how do you find it?’, the best bet would be to head to your nearest deciduous woodland. The plant relishes such areas that have damp soils or slight-acidic or chalky soils. Wild garlic, also known by names such as ramsoms or bear’s garlic, are reputedly indicators of very ancient woodlands and in the UK, they are often associated with the same types of woodlands in which you find carpets of bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) in spring. As well as woodlands, wild garlic is also often spotted in hedgerows, shady damp meadows, or stream sides.
When is wild garlic season in the UK?
Wild garlic fills many woodlands with the distinctive aroma of garlic in spring. The smell is unmistakable when the plant flowers, from April to June in the UK. A key aspect of wild garlic identification is to look at the flowers themselves, they are small, star-shaped and white. The leaves of the plant will be shiny green and broad, up to 25cm long and pointed at the end, and occurring singularly, rather than being on a stalk with multiple leaves. During wild garlic season, you can harvest the edible leaves and flowers of the plant. However, it is imperative to know what you are looking for when it comes to wild garlic, as there are other plants similar to wild garlic that reside in those woodlands that can be dangerous if consumed.
Are you allowed to forage wild garlic?
Foraging is a practice allowed by law in the UK as long as you are picking just for your own consumption, and not for commercial purposes. You are allowed to forage on most land; however, you do need the permission of the landowner to forage on private land. When it comes to areas like farmlands, often the farmland itself is private property but byways and paths are public. So, if you stick to those byways, it is generally regarded OK to forage. It is also recommended to avoid foraging on Sites of Special Scientific Interest, but places like nature reserves can tend to allow it if rules are adhered to. There may be local bylaws that could ban foraging. These rules can be passed by local councils or government conservation bodies. Do your research before going foraging to check the rules in the area you want to go foraging in.
The guidelines above cover foraging for fruit, foliage, and flowers, but you should not remove entire plants. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), it is illegal to dig up a plant without permission from the landowner or occupier. There are guidelines recommended for sustainable foraging. This includes only picking in areas where plants are in abundance and not picking whole plant, only taking a few leaves per plant. Foraging in this sustainable way helps ensure the plants will recover come the summertime and continue to multiply.
Which poisonous plants look like wild garlic?
As mentioned previously, there are dangers when it comes to foraging wild garlic. There is more than one plant similar to wild garlic that could be found in the same woodland conditions where you would find wild garlic. Every year, people accidentally poison themselves by consuming lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) or autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale). These plants are similar in appearance to wild garlic, but there are key distinguishing factors that can help you identify wild garlic and not fall foul of the doppelgangers. We have compiled the most important differences between the plants below.
How to tell the difference: lily of the valley vs wild garlic
Here are some of the key characteristics to look for, to make sure it is indeed the edible plant, wild garlic:
- Flowering: April to June
- Flowers: Small, white, star-shaped flowers in clusters
- Strong garlic odour
- Leaves growing from the base on individual stems
- Matte underside of foliage
- Leaves give off strong garlicky scent when crushed
- Large/older leaves hanging down
Lily-of-the-valley is also a common woodland plant that is not edible. The key indicators to look out for when trying to distinguish between lily-of-the-valley and wild garlic is the flowers and the scent. The flowers are white and bell-like and there is no garlicky smell. It can be easily confused with wild garlic when it is not in flower, when the characteristics of the leaves should be the key thing to look out for.
Lily-of-the-valley have the following characteristics:
- Flowering: May to June
- Flowers: Small, white, bell-like flowers
- Odour: Leaves neutral, intensely fragrant flowers, no smell of garlic
- Two leaves per stem
- Underside of leaf the same color as upper side
- Upright growth of older green foliage
Lily-of-the-valley vs wild garlic: Key differences and how to tell lily-of-the-valley from wild garlic
- Wild garlic mainly found in deciduous forests. Lily-of-the-valley found in forests and gardens.
- Flowers: Small, white wild garlic blossom appears between April and June. The more fragrant lily-of-the-valley flowers bloom between May and June.
- Odour: Wild garlic leaves emit strong garlic odour when crushed. Lily-of-the-valley leaves are thicker and have a neutral smell.
- Underside of leaf: Underside of wild garlic leaves are dull. Upper surface of lily-of-the-valley similar to the upper side and not dull.
- Leaves: Wild garlic only has one leaf growing per stem and larger leaves hang down. Lily-of-the-valley foliage is thicker, and two leaves emerge from each stem.
How to tell the difference: autumn crocus vs wild garlic
Wild garlic and autumn crocus are often mistaken for each other as they both grow in similar damp areas. The autumn crocus gives the garden a pop of colour after the summer blooms have gone over, but it puts out its leaves in spring and the blossom does not come till autumn. Autumn crocus has the following characteristics:
- Grows in primarily in meadows, rarely in forests.
- Flowers: Crocus-like flowers, usually violet, bloom late summer to autumn.
- Odour: No smell of garlic, leaves have neutral smell.
- Leaves: Several upright leaves per stem.
The autumn crocus is highly toxic to humans and must not be ingested. That is why it is imperative to understand the facets of wild garlic identification to differentiate between wild garlic and these other harmful plants. Below we outline the main differences between autumn crocus and wild garlic:
- Habitat: Autumn crocuses commonly found in meadows, rare to be in woodland. Wild Garlic grows in woodlands and rarely found in meadows.
- Leaves: Several leaves per stalk for autumn crocuses. Wild garlic has one leaf per stalk.
- Odor: Autumn crocus gives off neutral odour. Wild garlic gives off strong garlic odour.
Tip: The simplest tip to help with wild garlic identification is the smell. The wild garlic smell will be intense and smell of garlic, the leaves of poisonous doubles like lily-of-the-valley or autumn do not. The same tip applies to the flowers, lily-of-the-valley smells pleasant while those of the wild garlic smell like garlic. Smell as you forage to help identify wild garlic, but also remember to check the leaves as you go.
If you want to enjoy that aromatic garlic taste without the strong smell that comes with wild garlic, you could consider growing garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) at home. Find out all about this herb with our dedicated article on growing and harvesting garlic chives.