Sensitive subject in sight: a plant vulnerable to harvesting, regulated in Quebec, but not in Ontario, and whose presence is classified as top secret… Wild garlic (also known as ramps, wild leek, ramson, etc.).
It is difficult to find information about this plant because of the stigma attached to harvesting it. However, I believe that the more we talk about the problem, the more we raise awareness.
I have written about different parks or nature reserves and the people in charge would say, with pride: “We have great garlic plants! But don’t say it in your text, we don’t want people to come and pick it!”
I totally understand why preserves don’t want to talk about their edible plants, it makes perfect sense to want to protect them that way. You should never pick anything in protected areas, wild garlic or not. But elsewhere, if you see some, is it wrong?
Not if you do it right!
So I invite you to read this article and learn how to pick this plant properly, but also to learn how to share the information if the subject ever comes up in a conversation with your friends.
Wild garlic, we have it in Europe too!
Yes, but it is not the same species. In Canada, we have Allium tricoccum, while in Europe, wild garlic is actually Allium ursinum. It is quite confusing that both species have the same common name. The European species has no protected status (so I guess it’s less taboo to talk about it), but is eaten in the same way as our wild garlic, but with seeds, fruits and flowers!
My first experience with wild garlic
Let me start with an anecdote. If you are not familiar with the world of wild harvesting, you must understand the atmosphere that reigns around this sacred and untouchable deity that is wild garlic…
New passion: wild harvesting.
Location: natural trail where gathering is allowed.
Backpack on the shoulder, our identification books in our hands, my spouse and I are walking in search of mushrooms. It’s a beautiful afternoon, but there are few people on the trail. Suddenly, at the bend in the path, I hear my spouse say, “Wild garlic?”
No. Impossible! There are too many of them! The trail goes down a big, steep, wooded hill that is COVERED with these pretty, soft green leaves. It can’t be that, everyone makes a big deal about it, that it’s rare and protected, and here, without even looking, we find a bunch? No way!
We pick a leaf and we taste it; no doubt, it tastes like garlic!
As a responsible biologist, I decided to collect some bulbs to transplant them at home, in order to create a new colony of this rare and protected plant.
But this is Wild Garlic, not just any plant! What if someone sees us? What if they decide to come back and pick it all up?
So I keep a lookout. I look at the identification book with a very interested look on my face, while my friend gets on all fours and delicately digs up some bulbs, ready to take his hands out of the ground at the first sign of a passer-by.
Everything is fine, no one in sight…
Then, I look up.
At the top of the hill, there are houses. They are perfectly visible in springtime because there are no leaves in the trees. And there, on his balcony, someone is outside… and observes us. In a robe. Arms crossed. Slightly leaning forward. Fire in his eyes (even from a distance, I could see it!).
-There is someone up there. Hurry up!
-I’m almost done.
-Will he call the police, do you think?
-No, but maybe pull a shotgun out of his slippers!
Terrified, we put our two or three bulbs in a bag and leave at a relaxed, but really fast pace… far from the fire in the robed man’s eyes.
We were not illegal at all. In fact, Quebec law allows the harvesting of 50 wild garlic bulbs per person, per year. We knew that, but the reality is that this harvest is so controversial that we feel bad anyway!
Many plants are given the protected status of “vulnerable to harvest” to protect them from over-exploitation. Indeed, if people start collecting whole beds and selling them, making preserves… well, yes, wild garlic could suffer a lot. If poachers start doing it, yes, again, it’s bad.
But if a few pickers collect them for their personal consumption, here and there… That’s okay, we’re not talking about the last pangolins either! In my region, in the Eastern Townships, it is even quite common as a plant. I know of several large beds within walking distance of my home.
The Quebec law forbids the trade of this plant and, as I mentioned above, the harvesting is limited. I eat it every year and have never harvested a single bulb (except the time mentioned above, and I’m not sure if that counts since I replanted them!)
However, the harvesting and sale of wild garlic is permitted in the neighbouring province of Ontario. A few years ago, a restaurant in Quebec offered dishes with wild garlic and it was foine from a legal point of view since they had been bought next door in Ontario.
In any case, I don’t think harvesting wild garlic bulbs is necessary: the leaves are very tasty in themselves and their responsible harvesting does not harm the wild populations.
A Very Long Life Cycle
Without going into detail, wild garlic takes almost 10 years to flower and reproduce. That’s a long time! This is one of the reasons why this plant is so fragile when harvested: it takes decades for them to regenerate!
In comparison, the European species flowers every year.
Fortunately, the bulb can divide and create clones, which is what leads to the appearance of groups. The seeds must be dispersed by animals (which eat them and defecate them further) to create new tillers.
The time it takes to reproduce makes wild garlic virtually impossible to grow sustainably and profitably. This is why there is no “legally” available version in Quebec: there is no cultivation, only wild individuals.
I’ve said it and I’ll say it again: no need to pick the bulb, the leaves are enough. But that’s not all. As each plant produces only two leaves, it is imperative to pick only one per plant, otherwise the plant will not be able to photosynthesize and may even die.
Do not pick in protected areas (this goes without saying!)
Be careful not to trample the plants. It would be a shame to leave a leaf and then step on it.
The flowers, seeds and fruits of the European version are also edible, but I don’t know much about it… After all, it’s further than walking distance from my house to get some!
The leaves are very tasty and can be used like herbs. They are a good addition to salads and a good addition to hot dishes (on pasta with tomatoes for example). However, they lose a lot of their interest when cooked and there is no real good way to preserve them.
Think of it as a seasonal ingredient: eat them once or twice in the spring and move on to the next plant!
I hope this article answers your questions and lifts some of the taboo surrounding wild garlic. Be responsible in your picking and don’t intimidate hikers from your perch with your killer look! Unless they arrive with a big shovel, you have the right to intimidate them a little… And even print this article, roll it up in a ball and throw it at them… but with a smile!
@Dan: you are talking about a. vineale, an entirely different species. It would be difficult for ramps to be invasive given how slow-growing they are.
This is one of those odd American vegetables that has become so traditional within some cultures that I want to grow it. Even those who are familiar with it inform me that there are more interesting vegetables to grow, but I want to see what is so special about this one, even if it is not so interesting. I have never encountered it here on the West Coast.
This plant is an invasive species in the Pacific Northwest with crews converging on patches to eradicate it. There are some who use it, but for the most part it’s a pest.
I have secret wild garlic spots on my property, we picked a couple around 10 years ago, and have just let them go. I did not know the leaves (leaf) could be used. I too am in the townships. Bolton ouest, interested to know what town you are from and if you worked with Louise L at the zoo…thanks for keeping up Larry’s blog, you articLes are interesting, easy to read and I am a fan.