How sweet is this baby, slightly scraggly wild garlic (aka ramson) arising from the decomposing leaves of last fall? Every year, I mean to come look for it before it's out in full force in Preston Park, but never get around to it. This time I managed to. One week you can't see anything, and then suddenly these have erupted! I never fail to be awed by the seeming suddenness of spring growth. Of course, all kinds of activity goes on underground before our senses delight in the different shades of green and heady aromas of spring.
This photo is from a few weeks ago - I've been caught up in travel to the US to spend time with family - the wild garlic in Brighton is probably more lush now. It has been interesting to witness the drastic climatic differences between the NY metro area and Brighton - the snow here in NJ finally melted off the other day. In my 12 years of living in England and visiting the US, I hadn't yet come at this time of seasonal transition.
Alliums - the garlic and onion plant family - are somewhat polarizing in the world of Ayurveda. Ayurveda, like most herbal medicine traditions, recognizes the medicinal value of these plants (see below), but discourages consuming them as food. The reason being that they have certain properties which affect the subtle anatomy in less desirable ways. Garlic and onions, which are quite potent in flavor and smell, are thought to disturb the energy of the heart in particular. Whereas the ideal in Ayurveda is the state of sattva, or calmness and purity, garlic is considered rajasic - fiery and stimulating, and onions are considered tamasic - dulling. Most people are familiar with the sensory residue left after consuming alliums, which doesn't occur with other foods. However, some within the Ayurvedic community feel that there isn't a need to completely refrain from using garlic in food.
According to this pharmacological review, wild garlic, Allium ursinum, has many of the same properties as cultivated garlic (A. sativum):
- Reduces blood pressure (one study shows it's more potent than A. sativum)
- Inhibitory effect on cholesterol synthesis
- In vitro studies showed antimicrobial activity of A. ursinum extracts against:
Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus subtilis, Escherichia coli, Proteus mirabilis, Salmonella enteritidis, and fungi: Cladosporium sp., Aspergillus niger, Rhizopus nigricans,
Geotrichum candidum, Penicillium expansum, Candida lipolytica, Mycoderma,
The highest amount of sulfoxides occurs in March & April, and the amounts of individual sulfoxides vary at various times in its growing season.
Traditionally, wild garlic has been used for:
- stimulating digestion
- antimicrobial action
- removing toxins
- preventing cardiovascular problems
- wound healing and chronic skin problems (applied externally)
My take on alliums as food
I think that one can use personal judgement and not be dogmatic about it. Certainly, if someone is feeling fiery in their psyche or body, then they might benefit from eliminating garlic (and maybe onions, too) and seeing if that helps calm things down. It may also be worth minimizing if doing some intense inner or spiritual work - most spiritual paths discourage garlic and onion consumption, understandably. You can also pair it with things that counter the stimulating, fiery aspects, like yogurt (plant-based or dairy).
To me, wild garlic seems somewhat less intense than garlic bulbs - I suspect it would take a lot of wild garlic to approach the rajasic level of cultivated garlic bulbs. On the other hand, subtle is, well, subtle, and I suppose if one really wanted to discern how this group of plants affects you, it would be useful to completely eliminate for a period and then reintroduce. I personally haven't yet done an experiment to see what happens - perhaps some day. It may well help to calm my somewhat fiery temperament! However, even if you choose not to consume garlic as food, it's lovely to walk into an area with wild garlic covering the ground and smell the distinctive, sulfury odor.
Apparently, one of the stories behind it being named Allium ursinum is that bears go for it when emerging from hibernation (ursus means bear in Latin). I don't know whether that's true, but it's fun to imagine.
Identification & ways to use
Wild garlic likes shady areas, and you'll often find it covering the ground in wooded areas. Make sure to gather the leaves from pollution-free and dog-free areas, taking a little and not stripping an area bare. Also be sure about the identity, as it can resemble the leaves of lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) and crocus (Colchicum autumnale), which are toxic. In an area where it covers the ground, you should be able to smell the garlic in the air, but where less abundant, pick a piece and smell it to check. I like to blend wild garlic into pesto or add to salads and soups. You can find lots of recipes around, and Robin Harford has some great ones you can check out here.
Sobolewska, D., Podolak, I., and Makowska-Was, J. (2015) Allium ursinum: botanical, phytochemical and pharmacological review. Phytochemical Review 14(1): 81–97.