Imagine you’re a bear waking up from your long hibernation in a snow hole somewhere in the hills and mountains of northern Europe. After such a long sleep, you’d be extremely hungry and would need to stock up on your vitamins and protein; your snout might be drawn to the forest floor by the pungent aroma of bärlauch (if you were in Germany, literally ‘bear leek’), czosnek niedzwiedzi, if you wake in Poland, or cheremska if you found yourself in Russia. If you were emerging into the spring air in North America you might call it ramps, but here in Crich we call it wild garlic, also known as ramsons or buckrams.
Its body-strengthening powers are well documented, and in many languages it takes its name from the aforementioned bear in tribute to the bear’s power and strength and its fondness for wild garlic. Hopefully none of you have spent the winter in a snow hole, but you too can appreciate the wild garlic season and benefit from its curative and flavoursome properties.
Wild garlic has long been used in herbal medicine, although for a time in the Middle Ages it went out of fashion as its distinctive smell was thought to be the work of the devil and witches (hexenzwiebel is an alternative German word for it – literally: ‘witch’s onion’). It is said to lower cholesterol, soothe upset tummies and be a great source of vitamin C, iron and beta carotene as well as being a natural expectorant and antiseptic. An old English saying, ‘Eat leeks in March and ramsons in May and all the year the physician may play’ testifies to its perceived benefits. But never mind its medicinal properties – it just tastes good and it grows in abundance right on our doorstep.
Take any woodland walk in our area (read a suggested short walk route here) from March to May and you’ll see wild garlic’s vibrant green leaves carpeting woodland floors and its aroma permeates its surroundings. At this point, it should be noted that wild garlic leaves look very similar to those of lily of the valley and a couple of other plants which appear at the same time of year and which are definitely not edible. Wild garlic is distinguishable by its intense garlicky smell, of course (crush a leaf between your fingers if you’re unsure), and also because it has one leaf to a stem whereas lily of the valley has two leaves per stem. In years of gathering wild garlic, I’ve never got the two confused, but it’s as well to be aware.