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, during a very wet walk in Somerset last week, I was delighted to see that the wild garlic is already putting in an appearance. I couldn’t help myself – I had to stop and pluck a leaf and take a little nibble. I love the delicate flavour of wild garlic, but by spring the whole of this lane will have a distinct whiff of allium, and the leaves will be topped with a froth of white flowers.I was delighted to learn that the species name, ursinum, comes from the brown bear’s habit of digging up the bulbs and eating them. I suppose if you’re walking through the woods and get a blast of onion breath it might be your cue to head up a tree at speed. Wild garlic often grows alongside bluebells, and both are known as indicators of ancient woodland (woodland that existed before 1600) – both plants spread slowly, and so if they are present in a wood, it means that the wood has been there for a considerable period of time.
Wild garlic is also known as ramsons (often misremembered as ‘ransoms’) or buckram, and is native to the UK and to the rest of Europe and Asia. The Old English root name for the plant, hramsa, appears in place names such as Ramsbottom and Ramsey Island, which I had previously thought related to sheep rather than a plant. It can indeed be an invasive little number (indeed, the vernacular name ‘ramsons’ comes from the same root as ‘rampant’), and when I was treasurer at Culpeper City Garden in Islington, I remember how we were inundated with the stuff for a season. Our lovely volunteers managed to dig most of it out, but it was very hard work.
It appears that I took a chance with my nibble, as it has been known for people to mistake the poisonous leaves of the lily-of-the-valley or the arum lily for the edible leaves of our plant. The scent test (rubbing the leaf and smelling the fingers to check for the garlicky smell) is a good way of identifying an individual plant but won’t help with subsequent plants. Fortunately, once the flowers are out everything is clear. Unfortunately, by this time the flavour has changed from ‘subtle’ to ‘brash’.
There is a limit to how much of the plant anyone wants to take home, although it has been growing in popularity as a culinary ingredient just lately, and it sometimes feels as if I’m tripping over wild garlic pesto every time I go to a posh restaurant. However, it’s not just about the pesto, as you will see from the fine selection of recipes here.
I was interested to find out that the plant has also been used as fodder, although like most members of the onion family it taints the milk produced by the cows and goats who feed on it. In Switzerland, garlic-scented butter made use of this natural feature, and was apparently quite popular. I am reminded of an episode from ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ by Thomas Hardy, where the cows eat wild garlic in the orchard and ruin their milk, so Tess and Angel Clare end up working together with the rest of the village to clear the plant. Hardy is not my favourite author, but I do love the set pieces that he creates, and I must admit that since spending so much time in Dorset with my parents I am warming to his descriptions of the countryside and the people and animals that live there.
Like most alliums, wild garlic also has a whole raft of medicinal properties: it is antibacterial, and is said to be the best of all the onion and garlic family for lowering blood pressure (unless you’ve let it get out of hand in your garden of course). A 17th Century saying has it that if you :
Wild garlic was also a useful source of Vitamin C, and was said to have been taken to many parts of Europe by the Vikings: in Finland, it was planted at the ports and around the harbours to make it easy to pick and take on board. It was believed by the Vikings to protect against the evil eye, and of course we know how useful garlic is against vampires.
For my poem this week, I’ve chosen one by the Welsh poet Leslie Norris, who died in 2006. His poem honours fellow poet Edward Thomas, whose poems conjure the British countryside, wild garlic and all.
(for Edward Thomas)What the white ransoms did was to wipe away
The dry irritation of a journey half across
England. In the warm tiredness of dusk they lay
Like moonlight fallen clean onto the grass,And I could not pass them. I wound
Down the window for them and for the still
Falling dark to come in as they would,
And then remembered that this was your hill,
Your precipitous beeches, your wild garlic.
And the shining ransoms bathing the path
I think of a low house upon a hill,
Runs on below; but if this vision should
To stop on a solitary road, the night colder,
Leslie Norris (b. 1921 d.2006)
Photo One (garlic flowers) by By Kurt Stüber  – caliban.mpiz-koeln.mpg.de/mavica/index.html part of http://www.biolib.de, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5352
Photo Two (ancient woodland) by No machine-readable author provided. Naturenet assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=134686