Ramsons - Wild Garlic

Allium ursinum

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

Allium ursinum

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.

The 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. It is considered to be an Ancient Woodland Indicator (AWI) species.

The leaves of Allium ursinum are easily mistaken for Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis), sometimes also those of Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale) and Wild Arum (Arum maculatum). All three are poisonous; potentially deadly incidents occur almost every year. 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".

Allium ursinum

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 Wild Arum first sprout they look similar, but unfolded Wild Arum 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.

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.

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.

Allium ursinum

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:

Cultivation

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.

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