The small white flowers and pungent leaves of wild garlic are highly recognisable and can be seen in swathes in UK woodlands. Discover how to correctly identify wild garlic and even grow your own.
Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) is a fantastic and distinct wild plant that offers both culinary and medicinal uses. Wild garlic goes by many names and is often foraged in spring, but it can also thrive in your garden. It is generally acceptable to forage wild garlic leaves as they grow back, but be aware if you take the bulb, you have taken the whole plant.
Wild garlic is a perennial belonging to the Allium family (Amaryllidaceae). It is part of the Allium genus and is closely related to garlic (Allium sativum), onions (Allium cepa), and leeks (Allium porrum). Native to Asia, wild garlic is now common across temperate parts of Europe and in the UK. It is a common sight in British woodlands, with its white flowers on show from April to June.
Wild garlic goes by many names. It is commonly known as buckrams, ramsoms, and wood garlic. Its Latin name, ursinum, means bear and funnily enough it is also known as bear’s garlic due to tales of bears feasting on wild garlic after emerging from hibernation.
There are several wild members of the Allium genus that can also be found growing in similar woodland areas. These are not types of wild garlic or different wild garlic varieties, but they are easily mistaken for or confused with wild garlic.
The most common of these is crow garlic (Allium vineale). While both plants are bulbous and have edible leaves, wild garlic is often preferred due to its mild garlic taste, while crow garlic is often used similar to chives (Allium schoenoprasum) in cooking. To distinguish between the two, wild garlic has broad leaves, whereas crow garlic has rounded, tubular leaves.
Garlic mustard (Alliara petiolata), also known as jack-by-the-hedge or hedge garlic, is another similar plant, at least in taste, that is commonly found in woodlands and hedgerows and often called wild garlic in error. It is an alternative to wild garlic and has similar white flowers but merely a faint smell of garlic. Jack-by-the-hedge has a strong mustard flavour before the taste of garlic, as it belongs to the mustard family (Brassicaceae). The leaves of jack-by-the-hedge are heart-shaped in the first year and become more serrated in the second year.
Wild garlic thrives in all types of soils and areas, but it prefers damp soil and is commonly found in woodlands and dappled shade throughout the UK. Spotting wild garlic is often an indicator of ancient woodland, but it can also be found in hedgerows, shady damp meadows, and along streams. When the plant is in bloom in spring, areas of wild garlic will have a pungent and very distinct garlicky smell.
There are a few key factors to look out for when it comes to identifying wild garlic. Examine the flowers and the leaves first to ensure it is indeed wild garlic and not something else. A wild garlic plant is a bulbous perennial that grows up to 50cm tall and in large colonies.
Wild garlic flowers are small, star-shaped and white. They have six petals and bloom in clusters on a tall stalk with no leaves. Wild garlic flowers from April to June. When out foraging, as well as identifying the wild garlic flower, take a very close look at the leaves. Wild garlic leaves are broad and shiny green, reaching up to 25cm long, with a single main vein and a point at the end. Wild garlic only has a single leaf on each stalk that grows from the plant’s base; the leaf will smell strongly of garlic. If in doubt, crush the leaf to check that it has a pungent, garlicky odour.
Other characteristics that could help with wild garlic identification include green sheaths over the flower buds, or seeds stored in triple seed pods in the flower. However, these last two are less obvious, so it is easier to stick to the main two methods of identifying wild garlic. That is, look at the wild garlic flowers and leaves, and check for the tell-tale smell.
Wild garlic has a stronger scent than garlic and the two differ in terms of their make-up of vitamins, magnesium, potassium, zinc, carbohydrates and proteins. The two plants also differ in growth habits, as garlic leaves are connected to a main upright stem, while wild garlic leaves grow from the base and there is a separate recognisable stalk. The leaves of a common garlic plant are also longer, pointier and narrower than the wild garlic leaves. A garlic bulb has one main bulb with many side bulblets, whereas wild garlic has separate small, narrow bulbs.
While it has a stronger smell and a distinctive garlic flavour, the taste of wild garlic is not as strong as garlic cloves purchased in shops. It has a more mellow taste and is often described as having a grassy flavour. However, please only forage the leaves and flowers in the wild, do not dig up the wild garlic bulbs. Wild garlic leaves can be eaten raw or cooked and have a mild flavour that is reduced by cooking. The wild garlic flowers are also edible and are commonly used raw in salads.
Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) is a woodland plant that is easily confused with wild garlic. It is poisonous when ingested, so proper identification is critical when foraging. The risk of confusion is at its greatest when wild garlic is not flowering. Even when not in bloom, it is easy to tell the difference, as wild garlic grows single leaves from the base compared to lily of the valley, which has two or three leaves on the stem. Another way to tell the difference is to crush the leaves. Wild garlic leaves will have that distinctive garlic smell. When in bloom, lily of the valley has bell-shaped white flowers with a strong and sweet scent, whereas wild garlic has white star-shaped flowers.
If you would like your own wild garlic at home, you can either grow the plants from seed or buy bulbs. Growing from seed can take up to four years for a harvest, while bulbs can offer a much quicker and reliable option. It is not recommended to dig up bulbs while foraging. It is generally okay to forage wild garlic leaves as they grow back, but not if you take the bulb.
If you buy wild garlic bulbs, they will be dormant, and should be planted outside in October or November. Dig a hole twice the depth of the bulb and add some sand or grit to the planting hole if the site is very wet. The flowers should bloom the following spring.
If you already have a clump of wild garlic in your garden, then you can dig it up and divide the bulbs to propagate more plants. Replant a divided bulb at a depth of 7-10cm.
To grow wild garlic from seed, start the seeds indoors in March, or sow outdoors from April to June. Sow them 1cm deep in low-nutrient seed compost, such as our Plantura Organic Herb & Seedling Compost. The seeds require a minimum temperature of 15°C to germinate and should germinate in 10 to 21 days. Once the seedlings are 10cm, transplant outside. Wild garlic grows well in pots with a good potting compost, such as our Plantura Organic All Purpose Compost, which contains all of the nutrients needed to grow strong, healthy plants.
Another option is to collect ripe seeds from wild garlic plants in late May to early June. Cut off the inflorescence containing the ripe seeds and sow them as soon as possible as described above. Collected wild garlic seeds only have a maximum viability of six months.
Jack-by-the-hedge, or garlic mustard, is a good alternative to wild garlic that can be grown in your garden. Discover more about this medicinal and culinary herb in our article on growing and using garlic mustard.