According to Richard Mabey, Ramsons or even Ransoms, has many colloquial names such as Stink Bombs, Stinking Nanny, Stinking Onions, and Londoner’s Lilies. Mrs Grieve describes Wild Garlic, Allium ursinum, or Ramsons, as the ‘Broad-leaved Garlic’ and dismisses it for herbal or medicinal use as having a ‘very acrid taste and smell and with very small bulbs ‘which would hardly render it of practical use’. She was clearly not a fan of this delightful plant and goes on to state that ‘Ramsons, the wild Wood Garlic, but for its evil smell would rank amongst the most beautiful of out British plants. Its broad leaves are very similar to Lily-of-the-Valley, and its star-like flowers are a dazzling white, but its odour is too strong to admit of it being picked for its beauty, and many woods, especially in the Cotswold Hills, are spots to be avoided when it is in flower, being so closely carpeted with the plants that every step taken brings out the offensive odour’. I must heartily disagree with Grieve on this, but then garlic of all sorts brings out strong and often polarised opinions. All the garlic plants are alliums and have powerful active ingredients, a pungent, volatile, essential oil, much prized for medicinal treatments. In medieval times, it was used to treat ailments such as leprosy, smallpox, or as a poultice for ‘scrofulous sores’. It was even said to offer protection from bubonic plague and used to this end in Marseilles as ‘Four Thieves Vinegar’, so called after the apprehension of four thieves who were plundering the bodies of the plague victims but avoided disease by liberal application of garlic juice. Moreover, in the First World War, was in demand for application to the wounded. In 1916, the British government put out a plea for tons of garlic bulbs to be harvested, and was paying one shilling a pound for ‘garlic’. I wonder how much of this was cultivated bulb and what if any, was Wild Garlic. The raw juice was infused into sterilised Sphagnum moss bindings for application to wounds.
However, take a stroll into one of the Yorkshire region’s wonderful ancient woods, and seek out the shady, dark, damp or riverside spot. Then having found a suitable place, stop awhile and breath deep to inhale the delightful fragrance of the Wild Garlic. Now is a great time to enjoy our local woods. The Bluebells are quickly emerging now, though this year they were halted in their tracks by heavy snowfalls and bitterly cold weather. Wood anemones are now showing well but very late.
Nevertheless, this is the season when woodland wildflowers really make themselves obvious with great showy patches. Notice how different plants form dense patches often with a single species dominating the ground floor and excluding all others. Sometimes the Wild Archangel, Bluebell, Garlic, Primrose, Woodruff and Lesser Celandine are mixed, but often single-species patches are the order of the day. The result is a heady mix of colours, textures and aromas. The Bluebell tends to favour slightly drier and free-draining sites but the Wild Garlic or Ramsons loves shady damp woods with wet soils; and here it thrives. The next few weeks will see Wild Garlic coming into bloom with its compact roundish heads of white flowers. The flowers and the fragrance from the leaves can be almost over-powering in a shady, still, quiet wood where a stream flows gently in its flood plain. In the late afternoon or early evening on a warm day, just pause, breathe deeply and savour this magical season.
You can pluck a few leaves to taste but please do not go harvesting bucket-loads. The best thing is to return in the autumn and collect handfuls of seeds – they grow well and easily in a damp shady spot in the garden. Then you have Wild Garlic for cooking: Wild Garlic mushrooms, Wild Garlic chicken, Wild Garlic trout, Wild Garlic scrambled eggs and a myriad other recipes. Melvyn Jones recounts how the eminent woodland historian Professor Oliver Rackham advocates eating Wild Garlic leaves fresh on site in a simple peanut butter sandwich with buttered brown bread. A few leaves from your local wood will not do any harm, but please watch out for vanloads of professional garlic pickers for posh restaurants. That sort of harvesting is damaging, and without the landowner’s permission is illegal, and so please take a number plate and report to the police.
Better still, if you want fresh, Wild Garlic leaves next year, (and I find it great for a rather special garlic mushroom dish with home-grown ‘Wild’ Garlic), then collect up seeds in the summer and sow direct into damp, shady spots in the garden. It the years to come you can then enjoy as the flower spreads freely in your own, miniature woodland carpet – unless of course you share Mrs Grieve’s opinion of this gorgeous spring flower.
Ian Rotherham, Writer, Broadcaster, Professor of Environmental Geography, Reader in Tourism & Environmental Change