Wild garlic has enjoyed growing popularity as a tasty kitchen herb in recent years. Wild garlic is used as a fresh herb for spreads, in soups and sauces or in salads. However, collectors should know the characteristics of the plant well: Wild garlic has some poisonous "doppelgangers." Eating these "doppelgangers" can lead to severe symptoms of poisoning and even death. In addition, unwashed wild garlic can be contaminated with fox tapeworm eggs. These can also cause life-threatening secondary diseases.
Recognize wild garlic correctly
Wild garlic(Allium ursinum L.) is a perennial, herbaceous bulbous plant of the amaryllis family. The allium occurs wild in almost all of Europe and northern Asia at various altitudes and prefers moist locations in deciduous and riparian forests.
The leaves of the bear's leek sprout individually close together from the ground in March and April, depending on the altitude. They are clearly divided into a leaf surface and a thin, triangular petiole. The leaves are lime green, lanceolate, pointed at the end. Their upper side is shiny, the underside is dull, the veins are slightly prominent and run parallel. The leaves bend slightly when fresh and are very easy to rub. When rubbed, wild garlic leaves smell strongly of leeks. The leaves should be harvested before the plant blooms, because after that they take on a bitter taste.
Recommendations for collecting and preparing wild garlic
- Leaves should be harvested one leaf at a time. If you pull out whole areas in bunches, you run the risk of harvesting leaves that are not suitable for consumption.
- When collecting wild garlic, one should know the plant well with all its characteristics in order to be able to distinguish it safely from its doppelgangers
- Who is not sure, should rather leave the fingers of wild wild garlic and fall back on wild garlic from the vegetable shelf
- Wash wild garlic leaves thoroughly under hot running water before eating or freezing, as they may be contaminated with fox tapeworm eggs. These can cause a life-threatening disease in humans with tumor-like growths, usually in the liver, that do not become apparent until many years after infection. The fox tapeworm eggs are not visible to the naked eye and survive common freezing temperatures of -18° Celsius. At temperatures around +60° Celsius, the eggs are killed.
- But beware, when rubbing wild garlic leaves, the intense smell of leek sticks to the fingers and can be deceiving in further samples, so always consider other distinguishing characteristics of the plant.
What to do in case of poisoning
In case of poisoning, it is recommended to consult a physician and the Poisoning Information Center (VIZ) (01/406 43 43) at Gesundheit Österreich GmbH (GÖG) without delay.
The following information is important:
- Information about the person (age, sex, weight).
- What and what quantity was ingested?
- When and where did the poisoning occur?
Supposed home remedies such as water or milk should never be administered without medical advice. Inducing vomiting can even be dangerous.
When collected in native deciduous and mixed forests, wild garlic is frequently confused with meadow saffron, lily of the valley, spotted arum, many-flowered whiteroot (Solomon's seal) and feral tulips. In both food safety and seed testing, our experts are confronted every year with contamination of wild garlic with poisonous plants and deal with the identification and analysis of these poisonous plants.
When pulling out wild garlic in clumps, contamination with leaves of meadow saffron may occur. The leaves of the poisonous meadow saffron(Colchicum autumnale L.) can be distinguished from those of wild garlic by the following characteristics:
- The leaves are narrow, oblong-lanceolate, and sit without a petiole on the stem, which remains in the ground.
- They sprout from the ground in clusters, the younger ones being embraced by the older ones.
- The leaves of the meadow saffron are flexible, almost "rubbery" and do not bend when fresh like the leaves of the bear's leek.
- The leaves do not have clear ribs on the back like those of the bear's leek
- They can be rubbed only with difficulty or not at all
- Autumn crocus leaves are odorless.
Eating three to four leaves of autumn crocus can already be enough to cause death. The cell poison (colchicine) contained in them takes effect only after a few hours. Initial symptoms of poisoning appear in the form of nausea and vomiting, followed by diarrhea. Intestinal, blood and bone marrow cells are destroyed, as a result of which death can occur after about two days.
Confusion with the lily of the valley(Convallaria majalis L.) can lead to considerable adverse health effects. However, life-threatening poisonings are rare.
Lily of the valley tends to be found in dry locations and grows somewhat later than the first wild garlic leaves:
- They usually have two or three basal leaves that form a leaf sheath
- The apparent stem is green above and reddish below, the leaf blades of the lily of the valley are shiny light green on their underside
- The leaves are rather flexible, almost "rubbery" in appearance
- As with the meadow saffron, the lily of the valley leaves do not smell of garlic
Lily of the valley contains cardiac glycosides that can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and increased palpitations (heart palpitations), among other symptoms.
The spotted arum(Arum maculatum L.) is highly poisonous in all parts of the plant (flower, leaves, underground organs). A characteristic feature to distinguish it from wild garlic is the leaf veining:
- In contrast to the parallel leaf veins of wild garlic, the leaves of spotted arum have a reticulate leaf veining. This lattice structure is particularly well visible on the underside of the leaves
- Older plants have clearly arrow-shaped leaves, in younger plants this feature is not yet so pronounced
Arum tastes very pungent and can cause severe skin and mucous membrane irritation. The skin irritations are caused by pungents and calcium oxalate crystals. This skin-irritating effect of the arum stick is noticed immediately when consumed. Burns of the oral mucosa may occur. In addition to the pungents and calcium oxalate crystals, other toxic substances such as cyanogenic glycosides and saponins are present. Even though symptoms of poisoning in humans are rather rare, special care should be taken with children due to the high toxicity (e.g. by eating the red berries). Serious and fatal effects have been observed especially in grazing cattle.
The genus of whiteroot(Polygonatum sp.) consists of numerous species, including native ones. All parts of the plant (especially the berries) are poisonous and contain toxic saponins and other toxins. Especially the many-flowered whiteroot(Polygonatum multiflorum L.), also called many-flowered Solomon's seal, grows at similar times and in similar places as wild garlic, which means that this plant can be confused due to some visual similarities:
- The individual leaves have a similar shape to those of bear's leek. The key distinguishing feature from wild garlic is that the leaves are alternately located on the upright shoot
- The white flowers are located on the underside of the plant and hang down in a bell shape
The leaves of the poisonous "garden tulip"(Tulipa sp. L. and its hybrids) can also be confused with those of wild garlic. In addition, hybrids that have developed can go wild and appear in the same locations as wild garlic.
The "garden tulip," when not flowering, produces only a single leaf similar to that of wild garlic. Therefore, anyone cultivating wild garlic in the garden should be careful not to accidentally harvest tulip leaves along with it:
- Like the leaf of wild garlic, the tulip leaf is divided into a lance-shaped leaf blade and a thin petiole
- However, the leaves are usually blue-green, thick-fleshed and with a waxy coating.
Salivation, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea may occur as soon as 15 minutes after consumption.
More information on the collection of wild plants can be taken from the recommendation of the Austrian list of edible wild plants and flowers.
Last updated: 10.10.2023