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Wild Garlic (aka field garlic, aka Allium vineale)

Some people call it wild garlic, some people call it field garlic. Whatever you call it, Allium vineale is a strong and flavorful vegetable. The flavor and appearance actually resemble those of onion more than garlic. Unmowed, it grows to be twelve to eighteen inches tall, with hollow gray-green leaves emerging from a single bulb, between one and two centimeters in diameter. A. canadense (aka wild onion) is a close relative, but has solid leaves and a distinctive netted sheath covering the bulb.

Wild garlic may grow in clumps or as individual plants. The two growth habits are typical of different growing conditions. You’ll usually find the clumps in lawns. These plants have smaller bulbs, and slim, tender foliage that looks a lot like grass, only slightly darker. Because it grows faster than grass, you may notice patches in your lawn that are taller than the rest. Pick a stem and see if it smells like garlic.

I prefer to harvest individual plants, which I find growing in shady, wooded areas. The plants are larger overall, and because they grow singly, the bulbs are easier to clean. However, the foliage of these plants is tougher than the foliage of the clumped garlic, and therefore less useful as an herb. They can still be used as a bouquet garni to flavor a broth, but should be removed before serving.

The best time to harvest wild garlic is in spring, when the bulbs are plump and full. By mid summer, the leaves may have gone dormant, making them difficult to locate. Also, the foliage will have drawn on the stored nutrition in the bulbs, leaving them less plump and tasty.

To harvest the bulbs, grasp the stem(s) as close to the soil as possible and pull straight up. If you’re harvesting a clump, you’ll see that the small bulbs, growing so closely together, hold a lot of dirt. Wild garlic does not have classic garlic-type cloves. Bulbs are usually single, although plants may occasionally produce a few small bulbs alongside the main bulb.

Any time you harvest the roots of a plant, you’re reducing the plant population. However, wild garlic is considered invasive by many, and since it grows in great abundance, this isn’t usually an issue. Still, it’s a good idea to leave a few plants behind for next year.

The above ground parts of wild garlic are more sustainably harvested. Wild garlic flowers are edible, and very pretty, with pink/purple petals. Flowers are usually followed by bulbils (small bulbs), and sometimes bulbils grow instead of flowers. I’m especially fond of the bulbils; each one is a pop of garlicky flavor. And they look like something out of Dr. Seuss. Small and purple, each bulbil sprouts a stem, making the cluster look like a wild hairdo. When the sprouted bulbils fall to the ground, they take root and there you have it, the circle of life.

Wild garlic bulbs make a strong and delicious onion substitute. I consider the flavor equal to that of ramps, a far less plentiful and endangered member of the onion family. You can use wild garlic bulbs fresh, or dry them for future use. And pickled field garlic bulbs are the perfect garnish for a savory g3 cocktail.

The photo is a loving tribute to my dear, late soul cat, Sisko. He was fond of wild garlic.

18 comments

  1. Kaitie Evers says:

    I am so happy to have found this post after hearing your wonderful podcast that mentioned pickling field garlic. Now I can be 100% sure of what I’m foraging for! Thank you!! You are such an inspiration to me. Thanks, Kaitie

  2. Angela says:

    Had a huge batch come up in the yard with my daylilies this spring.. Thanks for the hints for use. Enjoying in some Italian sauce tonight. Tomorrow, let the pickling begin!!!

  3. Ivory Hilvert says:

    Did your cat ever eat them? I just picked some and my cat ate two leaves and keeps meowing at me to give her another; I read that wild onion and wild garlic are both highly toxic to cats though and now I’m worried!

  4. sue says:

    Yes, thank you. I read that wild garlic is toxic to pets, including cats. I was worried as I have some in the front garden. I always thought how lovely it looked and now read that its toxic. I have two cats, one of them is grey like yours. I am going to remove the wild garlic as soon as I can and according to when its least likely to be attractive to them. I was amazed to see your cat sitting with the wild garlic, and well… oh that link … I couldnt find the article, but thanks anyway.

  5. Kimbra Krafft says:

    Thank you for your info about field garlic. I have a large harvest that I’m drying. The heads were at varying degrees of maturation when harvested. I’ve had them laid on a plywood table on my screened porch and am about to tie them together to hang. The heads have continued to mature while drying. At what point should I remove the heads from the garlic? I would like to use them for cooking as well as the bulbs. Also, can the heads be pickled? Separate from the bulbs, or can I mix them in a jar? Thanks again for sharing your knowledge.

    • Ellen says:

      I’m a little confused by your question about when to remove the heads from the garlic. Are you tying then together by their stems or with something else? If you want to tie the heads together by their stems, you have to keep the heads attached to the stems in order to tie and hang them. I can’t think of how else you’d tie them together, because once the heads are removed from the rest of the garlic they’re just little round balls, so how would you tie them? Sorry if I’m not understanding you correctly, but I can’t envision how you’d tie them together after removing the heads from the garlic. You can certainly pickle the heads, but you’d use fresh heads for that, and yes, you could mix them with the bulbs in your pickling. You say the heads continued to mature. If any of them have started to germinate and send out green sprouts, you should use those now.

  6. Kimbra Krafft says:

    I guess I’m not using the correct terminology — I’m knew to this. I’m talking about the flowers not the stems. I want to dry the bulbs. I’m tying the stems together with hemp string. Wanting to know if cutting the flowers off the stems affect the drying process, or if I can cut the flowers off and pickle them now.

    • Ellen says:

      Ok, we’ll go through this step-by-step. You want to dry the bulbs (the underground parts). That’s good. As for the flowers, sometimes Allium vineale produces flowers, which can be used fresh or dried. Sometimes it skips the flowers and produces bulbils (same color as flowers) that may start growing (producing green stems) while still on the plant. These should be harvested before they germinate, and can be used fresh or dried. If you’re not sure if you have the flowers or bulbils, you can post a photo on thebackyardforager FB page and I’ll answer you there. (But notify me here, so I can go check. For some reason, FB is not good about notifying when someone posts on your biz page.) I’m still not clear what you want to do with the stems. You’ve only mentioned using the bulbs and flowers, so I’m not sure why you’d be tying the stems together, unless you want to dry them and maybe grind them for something like a chive powder? Are you asking if cutting the flowers affects the drying process of the stems or the flowers? If you don’t want to use them stems themselves, I’d leave the flowers on the stems, tie the stems together and hang them to dry the flowers, then discard the stems when the flowers have fully dried. If you have something else in mind, please give me all the details and we’ll get this figured out.

  7. Kimbra Krafft says:

    Okay, it’s getting clearer. I have bulbils on 98% of my garlic. MOST white, some purple, and a few green. Very few hairy.

    I was tying the stems together to hang the bulbs to dry. I read on line that it was best to dry farmed garlic hanging by the stems. The stems continue to “nourish” the garlic as it dries. Is it not the same for field garlic?

    Sooo, let’s see if I’ve got this straight. I have bulbils. I can remove them now and pickle them, or I can dry them and use that way. Any bulbils that have the green hairies should be used right away. Garlic bulbs I will hang and dry for future use.

    I can’t that you enough for taking your time to help me.

    Kim Krafft

    • Ellen says:

      We are indeed getting closer!
      Yes, use the “hairy” bulbils right away.
      Yes, the bulbils can be pickled fresh or dried and ground up later as a garlic powder or rehydrated for another use.
      As of drying the garlic bulbs. you may hang and dry them, but the stems of wild garlic are so small and thin, I doubt they’ll do much nourishing. I usually clean my garlic bulbs, cut them in half, and dry them in the dehydrator.

  8. FungusFeast says:

    Thank you for this article! I found some (a lot) hairy bulbils earlier this week. For those of you interested, they work brilliant in sourdough. You just need to chop them up and mix into your dough.

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