Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, every so often a plant that I haven’t noticed before seems to be popping up absolutely everywhere, and this is the case with three-cornered garlic (also known as three-cornered leek). I first noticed it in the cemetery, where it was growing happily on the graves alongside the artificial roses, but then I saw it popping up along the edge of a wall by All Saints’ Church, and growing in some of the gardens in the County Roads here in East Finchley. It’s easy to miss because it looks rather like a white bluebell, but the giveaway is the stem, which is sharply triangular, like a long green Toblerone bar. The leaves have a faint but unmistakable onion/garlic flavour, as you would expect from an allium and if you turn them over, they have a deep ridge in the centre, which some people compare to the keel of a ship. Finally, the flowers have a fine green stripe, which is another indicator for the species.
Three-cornered garlic was introduced from the Mediterranean basin by 1759, and has been naturalising ever since, especially in the south-west. It is described in many places as ‘invasive’, and certainly it appears to take off like a rocket when in the right position. But it has numerous good qualities. As you might expect of a plant with a garlicky taste, it can be used for a wide variety of culinary purposes . On his ‘Eat The Weeds’ website, Robin Harford has a recipe for Wild Greens with Spiced Tahini Rice, which includes not only three-cornered garlic but also ground elder and herb bennet, both of which can be a right royal pain in the backside if they get a grip in the garden. If this doesn’t appeal, you can knock up some Three-cornered Garlic Hummus. And finally (and this would be perfect because the Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis) is just coming into flower in the cemetery), you could make Lady’s Smock and Three-cornered Garlic Salad. Robin is of the opinion that the plant is the closest wild equivalent to Chinese Chives, which can be expensive and difficult to obtain, so three-cornered garlic is a very handy free substitute.
I also think the pretty flowers would make a lovely addition to a leafy spring salad.
I find it a little bit amusing that this ‘invasive weed’ is one of the plants featured on the Borough Market website. Borough Market is a high-end food market close to London Bridge station, which sells all manner of delicacies, from native oysters to wild mushrooms. You can read a few more recipe suggestions here but I suspect that it would be a lot cheaper to knock up some three-cornered garlic pesto yourself if you have any growing nearby. Certainly one way to cope with plants which outgrow their welcome is to turn them into lunch. However, should you have a pet tortoise, this is one of the plants that the Tortoise Table website recommends that you don’t feed to your reptile, on the basis that plants that grow from bulbs are not suitable fodder. Plus, who wants a shelled companion with onion breath? Though I suppose it would be easy enough to run away.But enough of this silliness. From a medicinal point of view, three-cornered garlic is believed to have the same attributes as other alliums (the sulphur compounds which give onions and garlic their flavour are thought to act as a liver and blood tonic), though to a lesser extent. Interestingly, if there is (unusually) no sulphur in the soil, all allium species lose their flavour. The juice is said to act as a moth repellent, though I suspect that the onion scent might act as a person deterrent too. Furthermore, the whole plant is said to repel insects and moles. Personally, I would love to have a visit from a mole, but then I don’t have a lawn to worry about.
Three-cornered garlic has taught me a very valuable lesson. I had walked past the little stand of flowers above and completely ignored them because I thought they were white bluebells, or Loddon Lily. In a way, i was stereotyping them: ‘white bell-like flowers, long leaves, must be something I already know’. If I had stopped to really get to know them, to look at the stem and the leaves, and, most of all, to give them a sniff, I would have known that this was something different. As in all things, I need to pay attention to what’s in front of me, rather than just sticking it in a category and forgetting about it. The world is much more subtle and varied, more diverse, than I ever realised.