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.