I am so happy that it is finally wild garlic season! I love this pungent perennial plant for not only its flavour, but also its fantastic health benefits. Wild garlic is widespread through shady woodland areas of Europe and Asia and has the species name Allium ursinum (Bear’s garlic) as it is often a hibernating bear’s first snack! It has many local names and is also known as ramsons, wood garlic, buckrams, wild leek and hog garlic, depending on where you are. As you may have guessed, wild garlic is a member of the Allium genus, just like onions, bulb garlic, leeks and chives and, like chives, the whole plant is edible. The leaves are best used when young before the flowers are fully out as they can taste slightly bitter the older they become.
Wild garlic has been used as a medicinal herb for centuries, from the Celts and Romans up to the present day. Modern research backs up its ancient use, and developments in science allow us to look into its constituents to explain its actions. Precursors to its smell are sulphur-based compounds which are abundant in the leaves in March and April before flowering and in the bulbs late August and September. One of these compounds, allicin, is partly responsible for the delightful garlic aroma that permeates the woods where wild garlic grows. It also contains thymidine, astragalin, saponins, uracil derivatives and galactolipids. Secondary sulphur compounds are released when the plant is damaged or bruised, including thiosulfinates which evaporate easily and waft through the air.
It is a powerful, nourishing herb that benefits all tissues of the body, particularly bone and nerve tissue. It is highly nutritious with plenty of vitamins A, B and C, calcium, iron, sodium, phosphorus, copper, iron and selenium and is known as the ‘magnesium king of plants’ because of high levels of magnesium in the leaves. Magnesium is known as the anti-stress mineral and protects the circulatory system, especially the heart. Wild garlic is also a particularly good source of adenosine, with over 20 times that in cultivated garlic. Adenosine calms the heart and mind, reduces pain and blood pressure and helps induce a restful sleep. Adenosine is also neuroprotective, meaning it protects the delicate structures of the brain and central nervous system from damage. It promotes an even heart rhythm and oxygen delivery to the brain, suppresses high brain arousal and induces sleep by suppressing serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, epinephrine, norepinephrine and glutamate. It stimulates the flow of digestive enzymes, improves digestion and absorption and clears toxins from the gut. It helps normalise the gut flora. Not surprisingly, it was recognised as Plant of the Year a few years ago by the Association for the Protection and Research of European Medicinal Plants.
Cultivated clove garlic is known for its antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties because of its sulphur content and it was used in the First and Second World War for sterilisation of wounds. Wild garlic is much more potent with four and a half times more sulphur compounds than culinary garlic. With its antiseptic, antibacterial and antifungal actions, including against Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans (attributed to the sulphur containing compounds, such as allicin, that create the distinctive garlic smell), wild garlic is great remedy for the immune system. With added bronchodilatory and expectorant actions, it helps combat a range of infections including colds, flu, chest and throat infections.
All types of garlic reduce blood pressure but wild garlic is the most effective. A reduction in blood pressure also reduces the risk of heart disease and strokes. They also dilate the coronary arteries which is helpful in angina. It is a good source of antioxidant phenolic compounds and flavonoids, particularly kaempferol derivatives, which have cardio-protective and anti-thrombotic actions, protecting the heart and blood vessels from free radical damage and helping to reduce the build-up of cholesterol. According to research by Professor Holger Kiesewetter of the Homburg University Clinic, one gram of wild garlic daily improves the circulation, dilates blood vessels and thins the blood, so it is a good cardiovascular tonic.
Wild garlic may have several other benefits over cultivated garlic. It has higher quantities of ajoene and adenosine, which help to lower blood pressure and reduce cholesterol. Several minerals are also found in higher amounts. Extracts from leaves, stems and flowers have been found to inhibit proliferation of cancer cell lines including breast, lung, prostate, colon, lymphomas and neuroblasts. Wild garlic kaempferols act as a chemopreventive agents, inhibiting the formation of cancer cells. As if all of this is not enough, wild garlic also has anti-inflammatory and blood cleaning actions, and can be useful in arthritis. It is a relaxant and nerve tonic, and with its hypoglycaemic effect, can be helpful in the prevention and treatment of diabetes.
From an Ayurveda perspective, garlic is considered to be rajasic or stimulative and too much can aggravate pitta. In moderation it can fire up the immune system, clean and purify the blood and even act as an aphrodisiac!
The leaves make a tasty addition to salads and are often made into pesto as an alternative to or with basil. They can be blanched and eaten like spinach, chopped and added to potato and rice dishes, frittatas and other egg dishes. They go well with fish and can be added to soups, stews and casseroles. Cooking reduces the flavour of the leaves and flowers, so they are best added towards the end of cooking. The flowers look great sprinkled on a salad and can be added to salads, egg and pasta dishes, stir-fries and soups. The bulbs are a bit like onions or spring onions and can be added to dishes raw or cooked and you can use them instead of leeks, spring onions or garlic. They are also delicious fermented or pickled.
My favourite way to eat wild garlic is in a delicious pesto. Simply add washed wild garlic to a blender, along with pine nuts, a light olive oil, lemon juice and sea salt. Pulse until blended and add more oil, lemon juice and/or seasoning until you have the consistency or flavour you are looking for. Enjoy!
Just a note to say, if you are foraging for wild garlic, it’s a good idea to make sure that you are picking wild garlic and not the very similar but toxic Lily of the Valley. It’s very easy – just check for the characteristic garlic smell before eating.