Ramsons - Wild Garlic

(Allium ursinum)

Allium ursinum

Contents

Ramsdale place-name

The North Yorkshire place-name and English (locative) surname Ramsdale are both likely derived from 'ramsons', being a widespread colloquial name for wild garlic (Allium ursinum), the likely derivation of which is:

Alternatively, the surname Ramsdale derives directly from the Norse place-name Raumsdalr (the valley of the river Rauma in the counties of Oppland and Møre og Romsdal in Norway - modern: Romsdal) an eponym after "Raum the Old", son of King Nor, legendary founder of Norway who may have been descendants of the ancient Gothic "Raumii" tribe.

The actual derivation of the surname will likely only be discovered through improved Y-DNA testing of males of the Ramsdale surname to determine their paternal line.

Click here for a detailed review of the historical sources for, and the likely derivation of, the surname Ramsdale.

Cultivation

Wild garlic grows abundantly throughout the UK, preferring semi-shade under deciduous trees. It will succeed in most soils and prefers moist conditions, though it will also succeed where the soil is very wet in the winter. When given suitable conditions, it will form a dense carpet of growth and can be very invasive. The plant comes into growth in the middle to late winter, flowers in the spring (before deciduous trees leaf) filling the air with their characteristic garlic-like scent and then dies down completely by the middle of summer. This allows many other plants that come into growth in spring to grow in the same space.

Allium ursinum seed heads

Once this plant is established in your garden, you are unlikely to be without it, or to need to propagate it. However, should you want to introduce it to a new site, either

Ramsons can become dominant on ideal sites and, although the plants are susceptible to drought and require moist soils, they are also intolerant of waterlogged conditions.

Identification

"The Wild Flower Key" (2006) Francis Rose & Clare O'Reilly at page 515

Lily Family

Ramsons, Allium ursinum (Ancient Wood Indicator), perennial herb to 45 cm; 2-3 leaves, elliptical-oval, 10-25 cm (long) x 4-7 cm (wide), bright green, pointed, on long stalk twisted through 180 °; stem 10-45 cm tall, weakly three-angled; spathe of 2 papery bracts shorter than flowers; umbel 6-20 flowered, ± flat-topped, bulbils absent; perianth segments white, 8-10 mm long, lanceolate; stamens with short narrow stalks. British Isles, common (except NE Scotland, Ireland, frequent); in moist woodlands, hedgebanks, especially on calcareous or richer soils. Flowers 4-6.

The ramsons stem is triangular in shape and the leaves are similar to those of the lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis). Unlike the related Allium vineale (crow garlic) and Allium oleraceum (field garlic), the flower-head contains no bulbils, only flowers. In the British Isles, colonies are frequently associated with bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), especially in ancient woodland and Allium ursinum is an indicator species for ancient woodlands in North Yorkshire categorised as "wet" and "neutral to calcareous".

The leaves of Allium ursinum are easily mistaken for lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), sometimes also those of meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale) and lords-and-ladies (Arum maculatum). All three are poisonous and potentially deadly incidents occur almost every year. Colchicum plants have been mistaken by foragers for ramsons, which they vaguely resemble, but are deadly poisonous due to their colchicine content. The symptoms of colchicine poisoning resemble those of arsenic, and no antidote is known. Lily-of-the-valley is highly poisonous - all parts of the plant contain cardiac glycosides, as well as saponins, and the mechanism of poisoning works in a similar way to foxglove (Digitalis purpurea).

Most cases of poisoning from lily-of-the-valley are due to people, particularly children, eating the bright red berries the plant produces later in the year. Vomiting usually limits the absorption of the toxins but in extreme cases ingestion can cause coma or death. There are also cases of poisoning from the leaves of lily-of-the-valley being mistaken for the leaves of ramsons and added to soups or fried with other ingredients. Signs and symptoms included flushed skin, nausea, dizziness, headache, weakness, hallucinations and changes in heart rate.

In the British Isles lily-of-the-valley typically flowers in May and June, while ramsons bloom in April and May. In other parts of Europe lily-of-the-valley is particularly associated with the month of May. Indeed, majalis means "of or belonging to May".

When either ramsons or lily-of-the-valley are in flower, it is simple to tell the plants apart. While the flowers of both plants are white, they are easy to distinguish. Ramsons have a clustered globe of white flowers at the end of an upright stem, while lily-of-the-valley has drooping bell-shaped flowers arranged along a stem. It's only when both plants have leaves present - but neither have flowers - that the two look similar. The three main differences are:

  1. the leaves of ramsons emanate singly at the base of the plant, while lily-of-the-valley has two (or three) leaves on the same stem;
  2. on close inspection, the structure of the leaves is different;
  3. the most obvious difference is that the leaves of ramsons smell strongly of garlic whilst the leaves of lily-of-the-valley do not smell of garlic.

Grinding the leaves between the fingers and checking for a garlic-like smell can be helpful, but if the smell remains on the hands, one can easily mistake a subsequent poisonous plant for wild garlic.

When the leaves of ramsons and lords-and-ladies first sprout they look similar, but unfolded lords-and-ladies leaves have irregular edges and many deep veins while ramsons leaves are convex with a single main vein. The leaves of lily-of-the-valley come from a single purple stem, while the leaves of ramsons have individual green-coloured stems.

Regular handling of lily-of-the-valley can cause dermatitis, so wash your hands thoroughly if you crush their leaves for the purpose of smelling them.

The potential for confusing ramsons with lily-of-the-valley is usefully demonstrated in the way they are "keyed out" by John Kilbracken's dichotomous key:

"The Easy Way to Wild Flower Recognition" (1984) John Kilbracken

How to Use this book

This book has been written with only one end in view - to help the beginner to identify, more easily than ever before, the wild flowers most likely to be seen in Britain and Ireland. It does this in a way that is quite different from all the other flower identification books available. With the other books, unless you know the family to which the flower you have seen belongs, you must go through the whole volume looking at the illustrations and reading often complex descriptions until you decide which is the right one.

In The Easy Way to Wild Flower Recognition, you are led through the book by a number of simple questions about the flower you are identifying, till you quickly arrive at the answer … If you glance at the text, you will see that it consists of a series of Questions and Answers, numbered consecutively from 1 to 373. The Questions are numbered in blue, the Answers in yellow. When you wish to identify a flower, always start at Question 1. Have a look at it now: it asks you what colour the flower is. You should have little trouble in deciding on the correct reply, which directs you to the next Question. So you are led on, rather as though you were following the clues in a treasure hunt, towards identification. The Questions are extremely simply worded, and there is nearly always a passage of text and illustrations to help you choose your answer. All technical terms you might not know or understand have been avoided; or, if this sometimes proved impossible, they are carefully explained.

After perhaps as few as three Questions, and never more than a dozen, you'll find that you arrive at an Answer. Here the flower is illustrated in colour, with a passage of descriptive text giving details that will help in identification. The months when the flower is most likely to be in bloom are also given. In almost every case, each species has an Answer to itself, and your trail is at an end. Occasionally, where two species are very similar, they are taken together in the same Answer. Both species are illustrated, so you should have no trouble deciding between them.

Now let's see how the book works in practice …

  1. [1] What colour are its flowers?
    In most cases the answer will be self-evident. If two or more colours are present, choose the one that is most noticeable. It is only with purplish flowers that you may feel any doubt. Make it the rule to choose 'Red or reddish' if they are pink, purple-red, or any other colour that seems on balance closer to red than blue. Choose 'Blue or bluish' if they are violet, lilac, purple-blue, or any other colour that seems closer to blue than red.
    Yellow [2]
    White or greenish-white [87]
    Red or reddish [192]
    Blue or bluish [292]
    Green or brown [342]
  2. [87] (from 1) Is the plant growing in water?
    Answer 'Yes' if the lower part of the stem, or all of the stem, is submerged in water. Answer 'No' if the plant is growing on dry land, or if only the roots are submerged.
    Yes [88]
    No [93]
  3. [93] (from 87) How do the leaves grow?
    Leaves are described as being alternate, opposite, whorled or basal, depending on how they grow along their stem or stalk. Alternate leaves grow singly, on alternating sides of the stem. Opposite leaves are in pairs, and whorled leaves in groups of 3 or more around it. Choose 'Basal only' if all the leaves grow at the very base of the plant. The drawings should make your choice quite easy.
    Alternate [94]
    Opposite or whorled [141]
    Basal only [171]
  4. [171] (from 93) Do the flowers grow singly?
    Answer 'Yes' if each flower is solitary, with its own stalk or stem to itself. Answer 'No' if several or many flowers grow close together; the flower-stalks, if any, are very short. (Note: the well-known clovers may at first appear to have flowers growing singly, but in fact each flowerhead is composed of many tiny flowers and you should answer 'No'.)
    Yes [172]
    No [184]
  5. [184] (from 171) Does it have rounded flowerheads?
    Answer 'Yes' if the plant is a clover, with many very small flowers growing close together in a rounded flowerhead. Otherwise answer 'No'.
    Yes [185]
    No [186]
  6. [186] (from 184) Are the leaves sticky?
    Answer 'Yes' if the leaves are fringed with long red sticky glands. Otherwise answer 'No'.
    Yes [187]
    No [188]
  7. [188] (from 186) Are the leaves toothed?
    Answer 'Yes' if the leaves are toothed all round their margin. Answer 'No' if they are quite smooth.
    Yes [290]
    No [189]
  8. [189] (from 188) Are the flowers sweet-smelling?
    Answer 'Yes' if they are noticeably sweet-scented. Answer 'No' if the whole plant smells strongly of garlic.
    Yes [190]
    No [191]
  9. [190] (from 189) Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis)
    This plant is more often cultivated in gardens, but also grows truly wild in dry woodland. Each stem bears a long cluster of 6-12 pure white, drooping, bell-shaped flowers, all facing the same way. The pointed leaves, which are stalked and hairless, grow in pairs at the base of each stem. Flowers May-June.
  10. [191] (from 189) Ramsons (Allium ursinum)
    The star-like, pure white flowers grow singly on short radiating stalks at the end of each stem. The broad, pointed leaves are on individual stalks, arising from the base of the plant, which has a strong smell of garlic. It grows in woods and hedgerows. Flowers April-June.
Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis) Ramsons (Allium ursinum)

John Kilbracken's dichotomous key has brought us through eight (8) character couplets of contrasting leads to a simple yes/no choice based on smell - [190] is lily-of-the-valley and [191] is ramsons - demonstrating how these two plants closely resemble each other in virtually all characteristics save smell, notwithstanding that the flowers are quite different in form and structure. Ironically, the description in [190] of lily-of-the-valley makes no reference to the plant's sweet smell.

"The Scented Wild Flowers of Britain" (1971) Roy Genders at pages 205, 206 and 214

… LILY OF THE VALLEY Convallaria majalis … The white bell-shaped flowers are borne 6-12 in a 6-in, tall 1-sided raceme and are deliciously scented. They are followed by globose red berries … it is one of the loveliest of all our native flowers with a spicy scent, like that of the Dame's Violet which draws the night hawkmoths from a distance … In the Profitable Art of Gardening (1568), Thomas Hyll wrote of "the Wood Lily or Lilly of the Valley (which) is a flour marvellous sweete … Henry Lyte in his New Herbal (1578) calls it the Lilly Convall and describes the flowers as being "as white as snow and of a pleasant strong savour." … In The Flower Garden (1726) John Lawrence described the scent of the Conval-lily as the sweetest of all, neither offensive nor over­bearing … "Sweet May Lillies richest odours shed, Down the valley's shady bed" wrote Sir Walter Scott … Keats said of them: "No flower amid the garden fairer grows, Than the sweet lily of the lowly vale, The Queen of Flowers." … Specially retarded crowns (roots) are available from nurserymen in Germany for forcing in gentle heat in pots, to be taken indoors for winter flowering when their fragrance is always appreciated … There is a double form, flore plena, and another bearing pink flowers, rosea, but neither is as lovely as the single white form with its highly scented flowers … Hartley Coleridge, contemporary of Shelley [4], considered the Lily of the Valley to be the loveliest of all scented flowers. His lines dedicated to the flower are among the most beautiful in our language:

Some flowers there are that rear their heads on high,
The gorgeous products of a burning sky,
That rush upon the eye with garish bloom,
And make the senses drunk with high perfume.
Not such art thou, sweet Lily of the Vale!
So lovely, small, and delicately pale,
We might believe, if such fond faith were ours,
As sees humanity in trees and flowers,
That thou wert once a maiden, meek and good,
That pined away beneath her native wood
For every fear of her own loveliness,
And died of love she never would confess.

… RAMSONS Allium ursinum … A broad-leaved species, the bright green leaves resembling Lily of the Valley but releasing an obnoxious fetid smell of stale garlic. This is released with the slightest movement, for example a gentle breeze, so that quite a small colony may be detected from a distance. The flowers are white and are produced in a flat inflorescence on a 3-angled stem 12-14 in. tall. In bloom April-June … To countrymen it is known as the Broad-leaf Garlic, though its botanical name is taken from the similarity of its leaves to a bear's ear. The whole plant (including the root) gives off a fetid sulphurous smell. The leaves are used in the West Country to flavour pilchards and winter stews.

[4] "Flowers in Britain" (1944) L.J.F. Brimble at page 318: The white flowers appear in the wild state during May and June. They are borne about six to twelve in a drooping raceme which frequently hides beneath the canopy of leaves:

And the Naiad-like lily of the vale,
Whom youth makes so fair and passion so pale,
That the light of its tremulous bells is seen,
Through their pavilions of tender green;

The Sensitive Plant: Percy Bysshe Shelley

There is less potential for confusing ramsons with lords-and-ladies (friar's cowl, adder's root, cuckoo pint, wild arum) as is demonstrated in the way lords-and-ladies is "keyed out" by John Kilbracken's dichotomous key:

"The Easy Way to Wild Flower Recognition" (1984) John Kilbracken

  1. [1] What colour are its flowers?
    In most cases the answer will be self-evident. If two or more colours are present, choose the one that is most noticeable. It is only with purplish flowers that you may feel any doubt. Make it the rule to choose 'Red or reddish' if they are pink, purple-red, or any other colour that seems on balance closer to red than blue. Choose 'Blue or bluish' if they are violet, lilac, purple-blue, or any other colour that seems closer to blue than red.
    Yellow [2]
    White or greenish-white [87]
    Red or reddish [192]
    Blue or bluish [292]
    Green or brown [342]
  2. [87] (from 1) Is the plant growing in water?
    Answer 'Yes' if the lower part of the stem, or all of the stem, is submerged in water. Answer 'No' if the plant is growing on dry land, or if only the roots are submerged.
    Yes [88]
    No [93]
  3. [93] (from 87) How do the leaves grow?
    Leaves are described as being alternate, opposite, whorled or basal, depending on how they grow along their stem or stalk. Alternate leaves grow singly, on alternating sides of the stem. Opposite leaves are in pairs, and whorled leaves in groups of 3 or more around it. Choose 'Basal only' if all the leaves grow at the very base of the plant. The drawings should make your choice quite easy.
    Alternate [94]
    Opposite or whorled [141]
    Basal only [171]
  4. [171] (from 93) Do the flowers grow singly?
    Answer 'Yes' if each flower is solitary, with its own stalk or stem to itself. Answer 'No' if several or many flowers grow close together; the flower-stalks, if any, are very short. (Note: the well-known clovers may at first appear to have flowers growing singly, but in fact each flowerhead is composed of many tiny flowers and you should answer 'No'.)
    Yes [172]
    No [184]
  5. [172] (from 171) Are the flowers regular ?
    Answer 'Yes' if all the petals of each flower are equal in size and the same shape. Otherwise answer 'No'.
    Yes [173]
    No [183]
  6. [183] (from 172) Lords-and-Ladies (Arum maculatum)
    This plant is immediately recognizable because of its extremely unusual flowerhead. The true flowers are very small and hidden at the base of the poker-like flower spike, surrounded by the conspicuous, greenish-white flower-hood, which is erect, pointed and 15-25 cm in length. The shiny, hairless leaves grow on long stalks from the base. Lords-and-ladies, also known as cuckoo pint [1], grows in woods and hedgerows. Flowers April - May.
  7. [1] Editor's note: in 'cuckoo pint' the 'i' in 'pint' is pronounced as in 'mint' because it is derived from the Old English cuccopintle meaning 'cuckoo's penis' which it apparently resembles.

John Kilbracken's dichotomous key has brought us through six (6) character couplets of contrasting leads, only the first four of which are common to ramsons, lily-of-the-valley and lords-and-ladies, diverging in response to the question "Do the flowers grow singly?" demonstrating that, although the leaves of these three plants may appear to be similar, in virtually all other characteristics they are quite different in form, smell and structure. Unfortunately, the author's key does not include meadow saffron.

It should be noted that, as with most floras, the author's dichotomous key can only be used during anthesis (i.e. the flowering period - see step 1) as is also the case with such floras as:

When in the field in months other than April, May and June (i.e. when neither plant is likely to be in flower) refer to:

Ramsons and lily-of-the-valley both key out vegetatively "in three turns of a page" (sharing the same group JD) and are ultimately distinguished by their leaf odour - onion for ramsons and lack of leaf odour for lily-of-the-valley:

"The Vegetative Key to the British Flora" (2009) J. Poland & E.J. Clement

Key to Major Divisions (Based primarily upon the increasing degree of leaf dissection). For herbaceous plants choose a lower or basal leaf unless otherwise instructed. To separate leaves from leaflets, leaflets never have a bud in the axil. 'Leaves' or 'leaf' refers to leaf blade (excluding the petiole).

Key to Groups in Division J (Ligule and auricles both absent)

Group JD - Leaves with distinct petiole. Plant hairless … Damp or dry habitat …

Meadow saffron and the bluebell also key out vegetatively "in three turns of a page" as they share the same group (JW) but they differ from ramsons which have opaque leaf veins on leaves which are borne on a distinct petiole (leaf stalk):

"The Vegetative Key to the British Flora" (2009) J. Poland & E.J. Clement

Key to Major Divisions (Based primarily upon the increasing degree of leaf dissection). For herbaceous plants choose a lower or basal leaf unless otherwise instructed. To separate leaves from leaflets, leaflets never have a bud in the axil. 'Leaves' or 'leaf' refers to leaf blade (excluding the petiole).

Key to Groups in Division J (Ligule and auricles both absent)

Group JW - Leaves 3 or more per shoot, all basal … never glaucous. Usually bulbous or tuberous. ① Leaf veins translucent (± obscure and opaque in all other species). ② Bulbs annual without collar lines

Lords-and-ladies also keys out vegetatively "in three turns of a page" but the plant is assigned to group KT by reason of its pinnate-veined leaves (characteristic of dicotyledons) in contrast to the parallel-veined leaves of ramsons, lily-of-the-valley and meadow saffron which are characteristic of such monocotyledons. Although ramsons and lords-and-ladies are both described as being hairless with shiny green leaves, they differ in leaf shape, leaf base and leaf venation characteristics with the leaves of lords-and-ladies being net-veined and often "black-blotched". Notwithstanding that the specific name maculatum means 'spotted' or 'blotched', not every lords-and-ladies plant exhibits black-blotched leaves and black-blotching is also rare on the leaves of Italian lords-and-ladies (Arum italicum subspecies italicum and neglectum):


"The Vegetative Key to the British Flora" (2009) J. Poland & E.J. Clement

Key to Major Divisions (Based primarily upon the increasing degree of leaf dissection). For herbaceous plants choose a lower or basal leaf unless otherwise instructed. To separate leaves from leaflets, leaflets never have a bud in the axil. 'Leaves' or 'leaf' refers to leaf blade (excluding the petiole).

Key to Groups in Division K (Leaves entire, alternate)

Group KT - Leaves in basal rosette (or plant stoloniferous in freshwater habitats), hairless, pinnate-veined. Stipules absent but if ochreae (or remains) present (Polygonaceae) GO TO Dock

Poisoning incidence

Data taken from The Poison Garden. For further information regarding the poisonous nature of these three plants and the serious risk they pose of illness, injury, or death to humans or animals see:

Ramsons
(wild garlic)
Allium ursinum
edible
Lily-of-the-valley
(May lily)
Convallaria majalis
poisonous
Meadow saffron
(autumn crocus, naked lady)
Colchicum autumnale
poisonous
Lords-and-ladies
(cuckoo pint, friar's cowl)
Arum maculatum
poisonous

Lily-of-the-valley, May lily (Convallaria majalis)

The plant contains three glycosides; convallarin, convallamarin, and convallotoxin. Convallotoxin is one of the most active natural substances affecting the heart. It causes irregular, slow pulse rates and can cause heart failure. In addition, the plant contains saponins which cause gastrointestinal poisoning.

In spite of its high toxicity there is only one recorded case of poisoning where, in 1989, a family of four ate the bulbs thinking they were part of the onion family. The paper reporting this case talks of 'digitalis-like toxicity'. The alleged poisoning of a three year old, in 1981, from drinking water from a vase which had contained Convallaria majalis, has not been confirmed by experimentation. A 1996 paper found that suspected Convallaria majalis poisoning was one of the top three causes of hospital admissions for suspected plant poisoning in a five year period in Finland. It is said, however, that of the 71 total hospital admissions for all plants only 11% were confirmed as plant poisoning.

Meadow saffron, autumn crocus, naked lady (Colchicum autumnale)

Contains colchicine and colchiceine, the former being the more toxic and more harmful. Following ingestion, initial gastrointestinal symptoms during the first 24 hours are followed by more severe effects including convulsions, cardiovascular collapse, multi-organ failure and blood clots forming in many places around the body. New symptoms may occur after several days. Muscular weakness and ascending paralysis cause respiratory arrest. The effects have been described as very similar to cholera leading to a slow, agonising death but consciousness remains to the end.

Ingestion of the plant in mistake for wild garlic has caused deaths. In 2003, a 76 year old man with a history of alcoholism ate the plant in mistake for wild garlic. He suffered renal and liver failure and died from cardiovascular collapse and respiratory failure. Some years before, in Central Europe, two people were poisoned by eating Colchicum autumnale instead of wild garlic. One died after 48 hours of heart, kidney, liver and lung failure whereas the other recovered after three days of severe gastro-intestinal upset. A 71 year old woman, from Slovenia, survived after mistaking Colchicum for wild garlic but only after exhibiting new symptoms up to three weeks after ingestion when her hair fell out. Another victim reported episodes of hair loss up to three years after ingestion.

In 2003, a toxicology conference heard a report of a case, in Switzerland, where a 3 year-old died five hours after admission to hospital following two days of stomach upset. At the time, death was attributed to Reye syndrome but, a year later, a relative heard of a case of colchicum poisoning and asked for a fresh investigation. Colchicum was found growing where the child had been seen playing and picking leaves and a tissue sample, held in the lab, tested positive for colchicine.

Lords-and-ladies, cuckoo pint, friar's cowl, adder's root (Arum maculatum)

In the UK during a four year period from 1996 to 1999, there were 23 visits to hospital resulting from poisoning by plants from the Arum genus. None resulted in serious harm. The only genus recording a higher total was the Solanum with 31 cases. A young child ate some Arum berries which her grandmother thought were deadly nightshade. She was given a block of salt to eat to ensure she vomited them up. All she remembered was the appalling taste of the salt. A young woman decided to eat a leaf from Arum maculatum. Even though she spat it out when she found how unpleasant the taste was, her mouth and cheeks became irritated and sore for a couple of days.

Caveat frumentator

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

As the various floras demonstrate, the key to accurate identification of these four plants when not in flower is their distinguishing leaf characteristics; the onion smell of wild garlic and the absence thereof in the May lily, the naked lady's lack of a leaf stalk (petiole) and the net-venation (or black-blotching) of friar's cowl leaves. To assist foragers (and to mark the 130th anniversary of Emily Dickinson's death on 15th May 1886 [2]) I have penned a cautionary ballad meter quatrain (8-6-8-6, abcb) based on these specific 'foliar' attributes which, if committed to memory and recalled when foraging for ramsons, should preclude mistaken identification:

Wild garlic leaves of onion smell,
May lily's never foul;
the naked lady's sessile leaf,
net-veined the friar's cowl.

[2] I pull a flower from the woods, Emily Dickinson (fascicle 83).

Legal considerations

Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 section 13 prescribes measures for the protection of wild plants through prohibition of

  1. the unauthorised, intentional uprooting of any wild plant species, and
  2. any picking, uprooting, destruction or sale of plants (or their derivatives) listed on Schedule 8.

However, it is not an offence to pick the "Four Fs" (fruit, foliage, fungi or flowers, where not specifically protected) which are growing wild if they are for personal use and not for sale. This is not part of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 but a part of common law - see also Theft Act 1968 section 4(3) below. It covers such customs as blackberry-picking, taking ivy and holly at Christmas, mushroom-hunting and gathering sloes. To exercise this right you must be somewhere you have a legal right to be, such as on a public footpath or in a public park. You cannot just go anywhere and pick the "Four Fs". In some places such as parks or commons local byelaws prevent such activities.

Theft Act 1968 section 4(3) specifically provides that a person who picks mushrooms growing wild on any land, or who picks flowers, fruit or foliage from a plant growing wild on any land, does not (although not in possession of the land) steal what he picks, unless he does it for reward or for sale or other commercial purpose, and, for purposes of this sub-section "mushroom" includes any fungus, and "plant" includes any shrub or tree. By section 7, a person guilty of theft shall, on conviction on indictment, be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years.

A note about knives …

When harvesting foods it is far better to cut the plant because it causes less damage, and you might also want to cut, peel and eat it on the spot. It is not unlawful to carry a knife provided that it conforms to certain restrictions.

It is legal to carry a "non-lockable", folding pocket-knife if the cutting edge of its blade does not exceed three (3) inches - see Criminal Justice Act 1988 section 139(3) as applied in the decision of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) in R v Deegan (1998).

Generally the following restrictions apply:

  1. no knife can be carried on any school premises (Offensive Weapons Act 1996 section 4)
  2. it must not be an 'automatic' or 'gravity' opened flick or butterfly knife (Offensive Weapons Act 1959 section 1)
  3. it must not be disguised as something innocent (Criminal Justice Act 1988 section 141 as amended by The Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) Orders 1988 and 2002)
  4. a folding pocket-knife which is capable of being locked open is a bladed article for the purposes of section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Harris v DPP and Fehmi v DPP)

Note that any knife which is not banned (see above) or has a blade longer than three inches (e.g. a hunting knife) can still be carried in public provided you have a "good reason or lawful authority" for doing so - Criminal Justice Act 1988 section 139(4).

Criminal Justice Act 1988 section 139(1) provides that, subject to the defences prescribed in sub-sections (4) and (5), a person who has any article which has a blade or is sharply pointed (except a non-lockable, folding pocket-knife with a blade the cutting edge of which does not exceed 3 inches) with him in a public place (i.e. any place to which at the material time the public have or are permitted access, whether on payment or otherwise) shall be guilty of an offence.

It shall be a defence for a person charged with an offence under section 139(1) to prove that he had

  1. good reason or lawful authority for having the article with him in a public place - section 139(4);
  2. the article with him (a) for use at work, (b) for religious reasons or (c) as part of any national costume - section 139(5).

The offence under Criminal Justice Act 1988 section 139(1), punishable under sub-section 139(6) on summary conviction to a fine "not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale", was increased by section 3 of the Offensive Weapons Act 1996

  1. on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or both;
  2. on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years (increased to four years by section 42(1)(a) of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006), or a fine, or both.

Culinary and medicinal use

"Herbal Simples approved for modern uses of cure" (1895) W.T. Fernie M.D. at page 221

Preface to the first edition

… It may happen that one or another enquirer taking up this book will ask, to begin with, "What is a Herbal Simple?" The English word "Simple," composed of two Latin words, 'Singula plica' (a single fold), means "singleness," whether of material or purpose.

From primitive times the term "Herbal Simple" has been applied to any homely curative remedy consisting of one ingredient only, and that of a vegetable nature. Many such a native medicine found favour and success with our single-minded forefathers, this being the "reverent simplicity of ancienter times" … a trite proverb of former times bids us:

"Eat leeks in Lide [3] and ramsons in May,
Then all the year after physicians can play."

Ramsons, or the Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum), is broad leaved and grows abundantly on our moist meadow banks, with a strong smell of onions when crushed or bruised. It is perennial, having egg-shaped or lance-like leaves, whilst bearing large, pearly-white blossoms with acute petals. The name is the plural of "Ramse" or "Ram" which signifies strong-smelling or rank. And the plant is also called "Buck Rams" or "Buck Rampe" in allusion to its spadix or spathe. "The leaves of Ramsons", says Gerard, "are stamped and eaten with fish, even as we do eat greene sauce made with sorrell." This is "Bear's Garlic" and the Star Flower of florists.

[3] Lide is Anglo-Saxon for March.

Allium ursinum is an excellent companion plant in the garden, it grows well with most plants and seems to positively affect their health and their ability to resist pests and diseases. It does not seem to grow so well with plants in the pea and bean family, however, with many gardeners noticing reduced growth and vigour in both species.

All parts of this plant are edible in quantity when it is in season. The leaves are delicious raw or cooked and can be harvested as early as the middle of January in mild winters. They have a distinct garlic flavour, though are milder than garlic cloves, and really add something special to a winter salad. When cooked, they are normally used as a flavouring in soups, stews etc, though can be used like spinach.

Allium ursinum

As the flowers begin to open in the middle of spring, the leaves start to lose their vitality. At this time transfer your attention to the flowers, using them in exactly the same way as the leaves. They have a somewhat stronger flavour and make a decorative and very tasty addition to salads. The flowering heads can still be eaten as the seed pods are forming, though the flavour gets even stronger as the seeds ripen.

From the health perspective, wild garlic has most of the benefits of the cultivated garlic, Allium sativum. It is therefore a very beneficial addition to the diet, promoting the general health of the body when used regularly. It is particularly effective in reducing high blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels.

The juice of the plant has been used as a general household disinfectant and has antibacterial and antifungal properties, as well as antioxidant properties, that protect against free radicals. It may activate macrophages to reduce the synthesis of LDL cholesterol and protect against plaques and blood clots. Adenosine acts as a muscle relaxant and as a protectant against poisons, such as caffeine. It helps increase blood vessel width and can also reduce platelet aggregation (blood stickiness).

In 1992 Allium ursinum was declared the "Medicinal Plant of the Year" by the Association for the Protection and Research on European Medicinal Plants. Allium ursinum has all the benefits of Allium sativum products on the market but also has three advantages over this domesticated garlic:

  1. it has more of the active substances
  2. it has active substances not found in cultivated garlic, or found only when large quantities are taken
  3. it is odourless

"Herbs and Healing Plants of Britain & Europe" (1996) Dieter Podlech at page 128

Allium ursinum

Ramsons/Wild Garlic

Allium ursinum (Lily Family)

Hairless perennial to about 50 cm tall, with erect, unbranched stem; usually grows in large colonies. Leaves all basal, normally 2, to 20 cm long, broadly lanceolate, pointed and long-stalked. Inflorescence a terminal umbel, at first encased in papery bracts which soon fall away. Flowers stalked and star-shaped, with 6 perianth segments 8-12 cm long. 6 stamens. Fruit a 3-lobed capsule.

Flowering season: April - June

Habitat: Damp woods, hedges, shady damp meadows, streamsides.

Distribution: Much of Europe, east to the Caucasus; N Asia.

Active ingredients: Essential oils (containing sulphur), vitamin C, allicin, iron.

Uses: To treat digestive problems, rheumatism, high blood pressure and asthma.

Further uses: Fresh leaves in salads, soups and with soft cheese.

Home use tips: For loss of appetite or digestive disorders, eat fresh leaves chopped up small.

NB: Easily confused when not flowering with the poisonous Lily-of-the-valley, but the garlic smell of ramsons when crushed is distinctive.

Note: Many species of the genus Allium contain strong-smelling and sharp-tasting oils in all parts of the plant. The value of these compounds to the plants is not known for certain but they probably help protect them from being eaten by animals. Ramsons, along with Garlic, is one of the most strong smelling of all Allium species.

Ramsons in poetry

Ramsons is a poem by Richard Caddel (13 July 1949 - 1 April 2003) from "Magpie Words: Selected Poems 1970-2000" published in 2002 by West House Books.

Ramsons is reviewed by Peter Quartermain in "Stubborn Poetries: Poetic Facticity and the Avant-Garde" (2013):

"… ramsons (a plural) is current in speech though uncommon in written work, persistent like the smell the poem records. It comes from OE hramsan, the plural form of hramsa, wild broad-leafed garlic, allium ursinum, it is a pluralized plural and the poem is an act of retrieval, a reminder of the world outside the book. The now of things, the everyday – the apparently casual throwaway that eludes discard – inescapably includes memory, lingers in possession, and in possession carries with it history, memory, that weather-beaten sail …"

Richard Ivo Caddel (The Guardian, 18th April 2003) and (British-Irish Poets Archives, 15th April 2003).

Wild Garlic is a poem by Mary MacRae (1942 - 2009) from "Inside the Brightness of Red" published in 2010 by Second Light Publications:

Allium ursinum, ramson, sometimes ransom,
Old English hramsa: all Northern Europe
has a name for wild garlic, that startling white,
its pungency. Pick and they quickly fade
but in the mass - and what mass! - overwhelming.
In Cornwall they form thick banks along the lanes
and fill damp woods, making me long to be
propped on beds of amaranth and moly -
and truly I find they're magic: the moly-garlic
Hermes gave Odysseus to protect him.
Now hostage to fortune, how willingly
I’d pay a king’s ransom - in ramsons, of course,
whole armfuls of them, a wild cornucopia –
for the smallest chance of release, remission.

Mary Macrae (The Poet by Day, 9th April 2011) and (Second Light Live).

Useful links

  1. Why wild garlic is good for you (The Guardian, 30th March 2013)
  2. The wonders of wild garlic (Daily Telegraph, 12th April 2013)
  3. Get out more: a beginner's guide to wild garlic (Daily Telegraph, 17th May 2014)
  4. Wild garlic and crow garlic (Royal Horticultural Society)
  5. Allium ursinum (Plants for a Future)
  6. Ramsons (Wild Food UK)
  7. Wild Garlic, Gooseberries and Me: A chef's stories and recipes from the land (Dennis Cotter)
  8. Wild garlic (Ramslök) (Swedish Food)

150+ wild garlic recipes

  1. Wild garlic and cheese cornbread (Demuths Cookery School, 8th March 2016)
  2. Wild garlic and ricotta ravioli (Demuths Cookery School, 8th March 2016)
  3. Wild garlic soup (Demuths Cookery School, 8th March 2016)
  4. Wild garlic frittata (Demuths Cookery School, 8th March 2016)
  5. Spinach, wild garlic and ricotta malfatti (Demuths Cookery School, 8th March 2016)
  6. Wild garlic risotto (Demuths Cookery School, 8th March 2016)
  7. Wild garlic pesto (Great British Chefs)
  8. Vegan wild garlic pesto (Gloucestershire Vegans)
  9. How to forage for wild garlic and make wild garlic pesto (BBC Countryfile Magazine)
  10. Wild garlic pesto (Good Food Channel)
  11. Wild Garlic (Grow Eat Gather, 1st April 2015)
  12. Wild garlic pesto with homemade focaccia (Grow Eat Gather, 1st April 2015)
  13. Slow roast lamb with wild garlic and red onion (The Sunday Roaster, 1st April 2015)
  14. Growing and eating wild garlic (Of plums and pignuts blog)
  15. Pickled wild garlic bulbs (Eatweeds blog)
  16. Wild garlic soup (Mark's Home Cooking blog)
  17. Wild garlic soup (Edible Leeds blog)
  18. Wild garlic soup (Good Food Channel)
  19. Wild garlic soup (Cornwall Today)
  20. Wild garlic dolmades (And other recipes blog)
  21. Wild garlic recipe ideas (The Garlic Farm)
  22. Wild sushi rolls (Galloway Wild Foods blog)
  23. Lacto-fermented wild garlic (Galloway Wild Foods blog)
  24. Your guide to cooking with wild garlic (BBC Countryfile Magazine)
  25. Sweet pickled ramson flower buds (Edible Leeds blog)
  26. Making, cooking and storing leaf curd (Fergus the Forager blog)
  27. 5 wild garlic recipes (BBC Food)
  28. Roast duck, asparagus and morels (Bryn Williams, BBC Food)
  29. Roasted salt marsh lamb leg, crispy artichokes, anchovy and wild garlic pesto (Ben Tish, BBC Food)
  30. Slow-braised octopus with potato salad and anchovy dressing (Matt Tebbutt, BBC Food)
  31. Beef fillet with wild garlic purée and a fricasse of wild mushrooms (Michael Caines, BBC Food)
  32. Turbot, crab, wild garlic and leeks (Paul Ainsworth, BBC Food)
  33. Wild garlic and nettle soup (BBC Good Food)
  34. Wild garlic butter (BBC Good Food)
  35. Wild garlic butter on music paper bread (BBC Good Food)
  36. Grilled asparagus with wild garlic and pork fat (Daily Telegraph, 22nd April 2016)
  37. How to cook wild garlic (Great British Chefs)
  38. Wild garlic butter (be.)
  39. Wild garlic preserved in oil (or vinegar) (be.)
  40. Wild garlic dressing (be.)
  41. Wild garlic May’no’naise (be.)
  42. Wild garlic hummus (be.)
  43. Wild garlic pesto (be.)
  44. Wild garlic soup (be.)
  45. Creamy wild garlic rawsotto (be.)
  46. Season's eatings: wild garlic (The Guardian, 23rd April 2012)
  47. Nigel Slater's nettle and wild garlic recipes (The Guardian, 2nd May 2010)
  48. Nigel Slater's roast lamb with garlic-leaf butter (The Guardian, 2nd May 2010)
  49. Wild garlic and sausage fusilli (Jamie Oliver)
  50. Jersey royals and wild garlic (Jamie Oliver)
  51. Sweet potato gnocchi with wild garlic and sage pesto (Top with Cinnamon)
  52. This month's ingredient - wild garlic (Jamie Oliver's Fifteen)
  53. Wild garlic tagliatelle with mussels, clams, chilli and garlic (Jamie Oliver's Fifteen)
  54. Wild garlic pasta dough (Jamie Oliver's Fifteen)
  55. Wild garlic soup with goat's curd (Jamie Oliver's Fifteen)
  56. Wild garlic and potato soup (Riverford Organic Farmers)
  57. Wet and wild garlic risotto (Riverford Organic Farmers)
  58. Bacon chop with wild garlic pickle (Independent, 27th February 2016)
  59. Dublin bay prawns with Arak, tomatoes and wild garlic (Independent, 27th February 2016)
  60. Lamb and wild garlic Freekeh (Independent, 27th February 2016)
  61. Clams with ramsons (Independent, 29th May 2015)
  62. Garlic-shoot soup with snails (Independent, 29th May 2015)
  63. Crispy fried squid with garlic, curry leaves and almonds (Independent, 29th May 2015)
  64. Grilled lamb cutlets with garlic scapes (Independent, 29th May 2015)
  65. Wild garlic, potato and chorizo tortilla (River Cottage, 29th March 2016)
  66. Wild garlic and onion bhaji with wild garlic raita (River Cottage, 29th March 2016)
  67. Pan-fried pollock with ham and wild garlic (River Cottage, 29th March 2016)
  68. Wild garlic and goat's cheese frittata (The British Larder)
  69. Wild garlic pakoras (Eat Weeds)
  70. Wild garlic and potato soup (Woodlands blog)
  71. Wild garlic mayonaise (Aspall, Suffolk, 29th May 2015)
  72. Asparagus with Jersey royals and wild garlic salad (Booths)
  73. Wild garlic, lemon and ricotta toast (Food to Glow, 16th March 2015)
  74. Two recipes for wild garlic pesto (Shooting UK)
  75. Wild garlic and chanterelle-mushroom toasts (Field & Country Fair)
  76. Roast spatchcock chicken with wild-garlic rub and root-vegetable crisps (Field & Country Fair)
  77. Seafood chowder with wild garlic (Field & Country Fair)
  78. Chicken breast, wild garlic veloute & spring vegetables (New Yard Restaurant, 8th March 2016)
  79. Potato and wild garlic soup (The Great Little Places Guide)
  80. Nettle and wild garlic soup (Saga)
  81. Wild garlic and ricotta ravioli with lamb soup (Decanter)
  82. Wild garlic soup (Ramslökssoppa), wild garlic pesto and wild garlic cream (Swedish Food)
  83. Wild garlic soup (The Wild Cook's Blog)
  84. Wild garlic butter (Fore Adventure, 12th December 2014)
  85. Wild garlic ravioli with crab (Rachel Khoo)
  86. Wild garlic & herb butter (A Life of Geekery)
  87. Wild garlic soup (21 Hospitality)
  88. Venison carpaccio with wild garlic pesto (21 Hospitality)
  89. Pan-fried cod fillet with garlic polenta and tomatoes (21 Hospitality)
  90. Wild garlic pesto (Brighton Forager)
  91. Homemade pizza with wild garlic topping (Brighton Forager)
  92. Pickled wild garlic buds (Brighton Forager)
  93. Wild garlic veloute (Knockderry House, 19th April 2011)
  94. Shoulder of lamb stuffed with wild garlic and juniper berries (Holker Hall)
  95. Wild garlic hummus (Farmersgirl Kitchen, 13th April 2015)
  96. Salmon with potato salad and wild garlic (Olive Magazine)
  97. Roasted tomato and wild garlic bruschetta (Ocado)
  98. Wild garlic (or ramps) pasta (David Lebovitz)
  99. Wild garlic pesto and oil (Anne's Kitchen)
  100. Warm mackerel with potato and wild garlic (Ottolenghi)
  101. Wild garlic pesto and crumb (The Herb Kitchen)
  102. Wild garlic quiche with spring vegetables (Philadelphia)
  103. Foraged wild garlic bubble & squeak (Daily Telegraph, 17th May 2014)
  104. Wild garlic pesto (Tin and Thyme, 8th April 2016)
  105. Wild garlic and goat's cheese brunch muffins (Tin and Thyme, 24th April 2014)
  106. Cheese and wild garlic scones (Thinly Spread, 11th April 2013)
  107. Feta and wild garlic muffins (Recipes from a Pantry, 12th April 2015)
  108. Pesto and pine nut bread (Knead Whine)
  109. Wild garlic oatcakes (Allotment to Kitchen, 26th April 2011)
  110. Wild garlic poached eggs (Allotment to Kitchen, 25th April 2010)
  111. Wild garlic potato and bean salad (Allotment to Kitchen, 25th April 2010)
  112. Wild garlic dip (Allotment to Kitchen, 25th April 2010)
  113. Wild garlic, black garlic and white garlic cake (Allotment to Kitchen, 18th May 2015)
  114. Wild garlic, mushroom and brie quesadillas (Allotment to Kitchen, 17th April 2014)
  115. Wild garlic chickpea pancakes (Allotment to Kitchen, 15th April 2014)
  116. Wild garlic potato cakes with white bean ragout (Allotment to Kitchen, 2nd May 2010)
  117. Wild garlic, potato, feta and pine nut quiche (Allotment to Kitchen, 16th April 2010)
  118. Wild garlic frittata muffins (Allotment to Kitchen, 18th April 2010)
  119. Wild garlic risotto (Allotment to Kitchen, 7th May 2010)
  120. Savoury rice with wild garlic and peas (Allotment to Kitchen, 28th April 2010)
  121. Wild garlic wedges (Allotment to Kitchen, 30th April 2010)
  122. Wild garlic and walnut pesto (Allotment to Kitchen, 14th April 2010)
  123. Wild garlic soup with sparkle flowers (Allotment to Kitchen, 11th May 2010)
  124. Wild garlic tattie scones (Foodie Quine, 5th April 2016)
  125. Wild garlic and quinoa cakes (Yotam Ottolenghi, The Guardian, 6th April 2012)
  126. Wild garlic salad (Garlic Matters, 21st May 2015)
  127. Wild garlic hummus (Gourmandelle, 20th May 2015)
  128. Wild garlic and cauliflower soup (Planet Veggie, 14th April 2016)
  129. Wild garlic and kale tops pizza (Food to Glow, 12th May 2015)
  130. Wild garlic pasta with broccoli, walnuts and cheese (Food to Glow, 12th May 2015)
  131. Wild garlic and nettle pesto (Food to Glow, 12th May 2015)
  132. Creamy kale and wild garlic toast bake (Food to Glow, 5th May 2015)
  133. Wild garlic soup (Food to Glow, 20th April 2015)
  134. Wild garlic, lemon and ricotta toast (Food to Glow, 16th March 2015)
  135. Wild garlic pesto risotto (Food to Glow, 22nd April 2015)
  136. Teff salad with sprouted beans, pea shoots and wild garlic (Elizabeth's Kitchen Diary, 11th June 2015)
  137. Wild garlic and mushroom tartlets with wild garlic pesto (Katherine Marland, Love Food)
  138. Vegetarian dim sum with wild garlic (Paolo Bassanese, Energya, April 2016)
  139. Wild garlic pesto snails (Elephantastic Vegan, 25th April 2015)
  140. Wild garlic and asparagus crispy omelette (Kerstin Rodgers, Ms Marmite Lover, 16th April 2015)
  141. Wild garlic spelt risotto (Mark Hix, The Independent, 29th March 2014)
  142. Wild garlic and chilli sweetcorn fritters (Lavender and Lovage, 23rd May 2013)
  143. Wild garlic and brassica risotto (Allotment Garden)
  144. Ultimate wild garlic soup (Nella's travelling and cooking blog, 28th March 2016)
  145. Ultimate wild garlic risotto (or any kind of pasta) (Nella's travelling and cooking blog, 28th March 2016)
  146. Ultimate wild garlic pesto (Nella's travelling and cooking blog, 28th March 2016)
  147. Wild garlic, potato and sorrel soup (Vegetarian Express)
  148. Wet and wild garlic lasagne with creamy St. George's mushrooms and fresh egg pasta (Ramsons & Bramble)
  149. Wye Valley asparagus, wild garlic aioli and hazelnuts (Gordon Ramsay Restaurants)
  150. Black rice with spinach and wild garlic pesto (Savoury Nothings, 31st March 2015)
  151. Wild garlic and mushroom risotto (Mint & Rosemary, 10th April 2013)

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