One of the most welcome and distinctive smells and sights of a woodland in spring (at least, for me) is the garlicky aroma and white, star-like flowers of Allium ursinum: wild garlic or ramsons.
This plant is also known as bear’s garlic (supposedly it is popular with bears as a food), possibly the reason for its specific epithet, ‘ursinum‘, ‘ursa’ being Latin for bear. It is currently placed in the Amaryllidaceae family, after a stint with its Allium relatives in its own family of Alliaceae after genetic profiling led to the splitting up of the previously catch-all Liliaceae.
Where I live, the leaves of A. ursinum start to emerge from the ground in early March. They are a rich, bright green and elongated elliptical/lanceolate in shape, up to 25 centimetres long with pointed tips, forming a gentle arc from ground to tip. Each plant has two or three, and an interesting feature is the way the petioles twist; noticeable if you are ever picking them. Also noticeable is the strong garlic smell released onto your fingers. These leaves grow from an underground bulb – white, compressed, modified leaves evolved for resources storage – to which the plant dies back each year. These plants form clumps and can cover the floor of their woodland habitat.
In April they put up inflorescences with the flower buds sheathed in pale, papery bracts. The individual flowers have six pure white tepals, are around one-and-a-half to two centimetres in diameter and form a semi-spherical umbel made up of multiple flowers. In April and May they can carpet the woodland floor in balls of white stars. The flowers are pollinated by insects such as bees and ripen into fruit capsules containing black seeds, wild garlic’s main method of spread.
You will find this plant in deciduous woodland, especially in damp areas, and shady road verges and hedgerows. They leaf and bloom in spring before the canopy of the trees above them has unfolded and darkened the grounds below; once the tree leaves have expanded the ramsons die back to their bulbs until the following spring. It is distributed throughout most of the UK except the North of Scotland, through much of mainland Europe and into Asia.
This species is classed as an ancient woodland indicator plant, meaning that its presence, along with certain other species like wood anemone Anemone nemorosa, wood melick Melica uniflora and wood sedge Carex sylvatica, is a strong indication that a woodland has been established for several hundred years.
Allium ursinum hosts several rust fungi in the UK, including Puccinia sessilis, Puccinia porri, Melampsora allii–fragilis and Melampsora allii–populina. Of these, P. sessilis (below) appears to be the most common (or, at least, has most records) and has the common name of arum rust, as it also infects cuckoo pint Arum maculatum and a number of other monocot species.
An infected plant will develop pale yellow circles on the upper side of its leaves; look underneath and you seek find pale orange rings of aecia: reproductive structures shaped like tiny fringed cups that produce the fungal spores.
It also hosts the larvae of the ramsons hoverfly Portevinia maculata, which lays its eggs in the soil close to the plant; the larvae burrow into the ramsons bulbs upon hatching. The adult hoverflies, which are black with grey markings, may been seen on or around the plants, especially when they are in flower.
This species is known for its culinary value and is often foraged for, with the leaves, bulbs and flowers all being edible and tasty. The leaves are used in all manner of recipes – soup, garlic butter and pesto, for example – to bring a mild, garlicky flavour (with the obligatory warnings to make sure of the identity of your plant before you eat it, and not to uproot plants without the landowner’s permission; though as the leaves are usually the part harvested, no uprooting is likely to be needed). Wild garlic is even included in a spice mix sold by IKEA. I think it works well as a pizza topping…
The strong garlicky smell of the crushed leaf juice supposedly has another use, besides flavour: it is meant to repel moths.
Ramsons have a history of medicinal use, being used in folk remedies to treat illnesses ranging from coughs and colds to skin conditions and to promote a healthy digestive and cardiovascular system. Modern analysis has isolated a range of chemical compounds, including sulphur compounds, phenolic compounds, lectins and steroidal glycosides, and research shows that ramsons extracts do have antimicrobial properties, and other properties that give this species pharmaceutical potential, for example in treatment of high blood pressure.
Illustration of Allium ursinum, Icones plantarum medico-oeconomico-technologicarum cum earum fructus ususque descriptione =.Wien :herausgegeben von Ignatz Albrecht und verlegt bey Phil. Jos. Schalbaecher …,-1822.., courtesy of Biodiversity Heritage Library on Flickr, CC BY 2.O
Plants can be purchased as bulbs and grown in the garden for ease of harvesting, and for their ornamental appearance; however, they do have a tendency to spread, like they do in the wild.
The invasive related species Allium paradoxum – few-flowered garlic, a recent Plant of the Week – sometimes grows alongside A. ursinum. This species is not native to the UK. It comes into leaf and flower earlier than A. ursinum and has generally lighter green, linear leaves and small bulbils in its inflorescences by which it spreads. It is sometimes also called wild garlic, and multiplies to cover huge areas (probably crowding out the ramsons in the process). Its scent reminds me more of spring onions than ramsons. It is however, also edible.
If you are going to allow one of them into your garden, however, you would be better with A. ursinum, though you still might want to keep it contained…
– Ellis, W. N, 2019. Portevinia maculata [online] Available at https://bladmineerders.nl/parasites/animalia/arthropoda/insecta/diptera/brachycera/syrphidae/portevinia/portevinia-maculata/ [Accessed 10/03/21]
– European Environment Agency, 2019. Allium ursinum L. [online] Available at: https://eunis.eea.europa.eu/species/189243
– Falk, S, 2021. Portevinia maculata (ramsons hoverfly) [online] Available at https://www.flickr.com/photos/63075200@N07/albums/72157629242248166
– Harford, R, 2021. Wild Garlic or Ramsons – A Foraging Guide to Its Food, Medicine and Other Uses [online] Available at https://www.eatweeds.co.uk/wild-garlic-allium-ursinum#Folklore_of_Wild_Garlic
– Nature Spot Ramsons – Allium ursinum [online] Available at https://www.naturespot.org.uk/species/ramsons
– Plants For A Future, 2021. Allium ursinum – L. [online] Available at: https://pfaf.org/User/plant.aspx?latinname=Allium+ursinum
– Rose, F, 2006. The Wildflower Key Penguin
– Sobolewska, D, Makowska-Wa˛s J, Podolak, I 2015 Allium ursinum: botanical, phytochemical and pharmacological overview. Phytochemistry Reviews 14:81–97 DOI 10.1007/s11101-013-9334-0
– The Wildlife Trusts n.d. Wild garlic [online] Available at https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/wildflowers/wild-garlic
– Wikipedia 2021 Allium ursinum [online] Available at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allium_ursinum
– text and images (unless otherwise attributed) by Heather Forbes