There is one delicious wild edible plant that I can always count on foraging even during the coldest months of winter, and that's field garlic. Other names this plant goes by are onion grass, wild onion, wild garlic, and wild chives.
Allium vineale, which I know as field garlic, grows in clumps of linear leaves that are well camouflaged when they grow in grass lawns. But unlike grass or even other edible Alliums, field garlic leaves are round and hollow like those of chives.
There are a few inedible plants with leaves that, to a novice wildcrafter, could look like candidates for field garlic. And you know I am very big on safety first when foraging, as in always be 100% certain of your plant ID before tasting any wild plant. But here is a fact that will enable you to feel confident when identifying edible Alliums: everything that smells like onions or garlic is edible. Use your nose: the toxic “lookalikes” are scentless.
Field garlic is an ephemeral, meaning it dies back to the ground when temperatures start warming up for summer. Look for it in August and you'll be out of luck. But during the cooler months from fall through spring, this is one wild edible you can count on. In cold-winter areas like where I live in the Northeast, this dovetails perfectly with the timing of cultivated garlic, which is harvested in July. Just when the field garlic is going out of season, the cultivated crop is ready, and vice versa.
Field garlic grows in a variety of conditions from sunny lawns to partial shade. It thrives especially well under or near deciduous trees that don't leaf out until mid to late spring when Allium vineale is getting ready to go dormant for the year.
In winter, these are the easiest parts of field garlic to harvest and enjoy eating. They will peek at you above a layer of snow, looking a little bent and darkened by the weather but still smelling and tasting delightful in a savory way. Use the thinnest, most tender leaves like chives. Older, bigger leaves have an unpleasantly tough texture, but can still be used to flavor soups, sauces and stews using what I call "the bay leaf method": take a dozen or so large field garlic leaves and tie them into a knot. Toss the knot into your soup pot, but discard it as you would a bay leaf once it has given up its flavor to the food.
When you dig up field garlic clumps intending to harvest the bulbs, leaf size matters: thicker leaves will have larger bulbs. But they'll still be pretty small.Even a big field garlic bulb is only about as large as a pinkie fingernail. Here's a method I've figured out for cleaning them without driving myself insane:
Slice off the green leaves and reserve those for another use. Use a paring knife to cut off the stringy roots at the base of the little bulbs (most of the dirt clinging to the bulbs is lodged in those tangled roots).
Fill a big bowl with water and add the field garlic bulbs. Swish them around to release the dirt clinging to them. Repeat with fresh changes of water until the dirt is gone. Some of the bulbs will have brown, papery sheaths clinging to them, but these will float off when you swish them in the water.
Use the cleaned bulbs whole or minced in any recipe that needs a hit of garlic. They are also fantastic pickled.
The Aerial Bulblets and Flowers
Field garlic doesn't always flower, but when it does the flowers look like diminutive pom-poms of tubular lavender florets.
Frequently there are few if any flowers and instead clumps of bulblets. Often these bulblets sprout while still on the stalk. What happens is that the clump of sprouting bulblets gets heavy and bends its stalk to the ground where it puts down roots and makes a new plant.
I use the flowers and bulblets to make an infused vinegar that is delicious in salad dressings and in marinades.
Leda Meredith teaches foraging and food preservation skills internationally. You can find out about her upcoming classes and her books, watch her foraging and food preservation videos, and find her food preservation recipes and tips.
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