Wild garlic is certainly one of the loveliest discoveries to stumble on in the woods around Mytholmroyd, and its distinctive, tangy aroma is surely one of the most evocative indications of spring, and as we turn the corner into summer, these profusions of glistening, candy-coloured flowers and their blade-like, velvety green leaves, will still decorate our watery and woodland landscapes for some time.
We have been lucky in the valley this spring, with the abundance of this unique, decorous, fascinating plant becoming, since mid-March, bit by bit more prevalent along woodland edges, parks and moist, canal-side soils, and it is a plant that I have noticed in many other areas of West Yorkshire. In fact, hot-footing between one work place and the next, I have even taken the opportunity of gobbling a few of the edible leaves as a makeshift lunch!
Wild garlic, with its irresistible smell, tasty leaves and star-shaped flowers, has attracted us for centuries, and the sight of multiplying on a spring stream-side is a sure sign, just like the sturdy daffs, the fattening buds and the lambs in the fields, that winter is finally expiring. It provides a backdrop to our country walks and city parks throughout the spring, and the clumps of tall, broad-leaved stalks and beautiful flowers will flower on into June, precursors for those of deciduous trees. I have long been interested in wild garlic, its horticultural and culinary history, its relationship with animals, and its lesser known literary impact - including how it has provided inspiration in the world of poetry.
In Cornwall they form thick banks along the lanes, explained the late English poet Mary Macrae in her poem Ransoms, describing how the blooms of wild garlic fill damp woods, making me long to be
propped on beds of amaranth and moly. The poet's skillful depiction of its preferred situations provides a superb mirror-image of the plant's natural habitats, and her references to other plants give us some clue to the friends and relatives of wild garlic - one of which is the "moly" that she mentions, these being a herbal variety whose small white flowers are mentioned in Homer's Odyssey - Odysseus is given moly by Hermes because its properties will protect him from Circe's magic when he goes to her lair to rescue his family. And, accordingly, it is to family matters that we now must turn in our exploration of wild garlic.
The food we generally know as garlic (Old English, "Spear-leek"), whose cloves are pressed or crushed for culinary use, is strongly linked to wild garlic: both are members of the Alliaceae (Onion) family, both bear umbels of hermaphrodite flowers initially enclosed in spathes (sheath-like modified leaves) and both are known for taste and fragrance (with wild garlic slightly less intense). But cultivated garlic (Allium sativum) has a complex genetic history dating back to Ancient Central Asia, where it has been used in cooking, and even as a currency, for thousands of years. Wild garlic, on the other hand, is an altogether simpler affair. Sometimes called wood garlic, bear's garlic, broad-leaved garlic, or by its old English name of ransoms (Hramsa, meaning wild garlic), this European and Asian native, appearing at the winter's withdrawal like sprinkled cloud-dust along riverbanks and throughout deciduous woodlands, has always been regarded kindly.
In Gerard’s Herbal (1597), we learn that wild garlic maye very well be eaten in April and Maie with butter, of such as are of strong constitution, and labouring men, and, unlike its cultivated cousin, the plant produces flowers tasting stronger than its leaves or bulbs. Every part of the plant is edible, and its leaves are often used in sandwiches and salads, for use in pesto or in pasta sauces. The bulb its self is eaten raw or cooked, throughout the year, though for best results when the plant is dormant from July to January. In 19th Century Scandinavia, a popular butter was produced by feeding wild garlic to cows, resulting in a garlic-tasting milk. Pictorial evidence suggests wild garlic has been eaten by people since the Stone Age.
It is, however, not only people who like eating wild garlic. Its Latin name Allium ursinum denotes its significance to brown bears - in pursuit of the delectable bulb, the bears will turn over the earth to dig it up, a habit mirrored by the wild boar. The bears are not driven by hunger alone: wild garlic helps cleanse their systems after hibernation; the bulbs are healthy as well as delicious. In fact, wild garlic is eaten by various animals, including badgers, sheep and guinea pigs, and is chiefly pollinated by bees. But not all creatures feel the same. The plant that so attracts hungry bears ruthlessly repels mosquitos, moths, ticks, and fleas, along with many other insects. It keeps moles away, and is similarly shunned by rodents. Wild garlic is an ally of the gardener or farmer who wishes to preserve such crops as carrots, beet and chamomile, and is often planted as a "trap crop" repelling predators from roses. Less friendly relations are shared with peas - most plants in the Fabaceae or pea-plant family fall foul of a chemical produced by wild garlic, inhibiting their growth. Dogs are even less fortunate: eating wild garlic can be fatal.
For people, though, in addition to taste, wild garlic boasts an array of health benefits. It is said to lower blood pressure, eases stomach pains and has been used for many years in Scotland for treating kidney stones. But these gains were overlooked for many years, as wild garlic fell prey to a decline in medicinal popularity. Why? Perhaps the answer lies in the very trend-shifting nature of attitudes that has seen so many plant foods - the turnip, the sprout, the almost forgotten artichoke - fall in and out of fashion down the ages. Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that its medicinal qualities are generally seen as less than that of Allium sativum. This is misleading. While the positive effects of culinary garlic are longer lasting, the intensity of wild garlic's healthy impact is far greater. Swiss herbalist Abbe Kuenzle, who claims to have successfully treated clients with rashes, scrofula and herpes entirely with wild garlic, describes it as a plant that cleanses the whole body. Those with eczema and intestinal, problems, he feels, should "venerate ransoms like gold," while youngsters would "burst into bloom like roses on a trellis and sprout like fir cones in the sun," should they learn to rely on them!
So, like many wild and wonderful things on our doorstep, wild garlic offers a wide selection of curative blessings. The plant which Welshman Leslie Norris, in his poem, like that of Mary Macrae also entitled Ransoms, compared to moonlight fallen clean onto grass, is awash with goodness. Its leaves have assuaged catarrh and shortness of breath, and applying its fresh juices to the skin can help heal wounds. Eating raw leaves can appease gastric problems, "worms," diarrhoea, insomnia, and even heart troubles. Boiling freshly chopped leaves, adding these to a quarter litre of white wine and, if wishing to, sweetening with honey or syrup, gives us "Ransoms Wine," which is said to impede dropsy and age-related illnesses, while preparing a "whisky" of wild garlic may even stem memory loss and arteriosclerosis. Although appropriate advice should be sought before using any natural remedy, it is hard to ignore the restorative and therapeutic powers of wild garlic, which is rich in Vitamins A and B. Taken as part of an overall "de-tox", or simply an accompaniment to dumplings, potatoes, or other dishes, it can help to purify the body, easing circulation and flooding our bloodstream with vitamins to ward off sundry health complaints. Wild garlic is one of nature's finest remedies - just ask the bears!
For some, though, it isn't the taste or health advantages of wild garlic that invoke the highest praise, but simply the appearance of this upright, glistening plant - which gradually colonizes slices of woodland until the banks and forest margins are resplendent with frilly white valleys, small fountains of snowy stars. Indeed, the Ted Hughes poem The Merry Mink, celebrates this starry appearance:
He romps through the ransoms
(Each one like a constellation),topples into the river
Wild garlic loves damp, moist environments, so by rivers, canals and woodland streams you'll find it, providing cover for earthworms and threaded like a lace hem against backdrops of bluebells, anemones and primroses. As Mary Macrae reminded us:
Pick and they quickly fade
but in the mass - and what mass! - overwhelming.
Wild garlic thrives in slightly acidic soil and deciduous woodlands - enabling it to capture the early spring sunshine. With its two or three elliptical green leaves, rounded flowerheads and strong and sharp aroma drifting through the woods and meadows, this abundant symbol of the winter's end, sometimes foolishly dismissed as a "weed," is one of our most splendid, underrated plants. In difficult and testing times it can be hard to smile, and maintain a positive attitude to life, but come across a carpet of wild garlic brightening a shaded stream or urban hedgerow, and it's easy to empathize once more with the poet Leslie Norris: Pungent and clean the smell of ransoms from the wood, he tells us, and I am refreshed.