Wild Garlic

Changed on: 13.02.2017
hand holding wild garlic leaves
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hand holding wild garlic leaves

Wild garlic (Allium ursinum L.), or bear’s garlic, is a resilient, herbaceous onion plant of the lily family. Bear’s garlic is found in the wild across most parts of Europe and northern Asia in deciduous woodlands with moist soils.

The plant’s leaves sprout during March and April, depending on altitude, and sprout from the ground individually and tightly together. They have a clear leaf surface and thin leaf stalk with a triangular cross-section. The leaves are lime green, lanceolate in form and end in a pointy tip. Their top side is shiny, the underside matt, with slightly protruding, parallel veins. The leaves break easily when fresh and can be ground easily. The leaves of the wild garlic plant emit a strong garlic smell when ground. They should be picked before the plant begins to flower because they develop a bitter taste later on.

hand holding wild garlic leaves
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hand holding wild garlic leaves

Wild garlic (Allium ursinum L.), or bear’s garlic, is a resilient, herbaceous onion plant of the lily family. Bear’s garlic is found in the wild across most parts of Europe and northern Asia in deciduous woodlands with moist soils.

The plant’s leaves sprout during March and April, depending on altitude, and sprout from the ground individually and tightly together. They have a clear leaf surface and thin leaf stalk with a triangular cross-section. The leaves are lime green, lanceolate in form and end in a pointy tip. Their top side is shiny, the underside matt, with slightly protruding, parallel veins. The leaves break easily when fresh and can be ground easily. The leaves of the wild garlic plant emit a strong garlic smell when ground. They should be picked before the plant begins to flower because they develop a bitter taste later on.

Beware of mix-ups with similar, but poisonous plants

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Bärlauch und Doppelgänger Herbstzeitlose und Maiglöckchen
Bärlauch Doppelgänger

Wild garlic has become increasingly popular as a tasty cooking herb in recent years. The fresh herb is used in spreads, soups, sauces and salads. Its popularity draws ever more people into the forests to pick this tasty member of the leek family themselves.

Every spring there are cases of poisoning often ending fatally. Bear’s garlic is repeatedly mixed up by pickers in local deciduous and mixed forests with autumn crocus, lily of the valley, arum maculatum (aka cuckoo pint, lords-and-ladies etc.), Solomon’s seal and wild tulips.

AGES’ food safety institutes are confronted by wild garlic contaminated with these toxic plants every year.

 

 

Poisonous Doubles

Autumn Crocus

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Autumn Crocus
Autumn Crocus

The leaves of the poisonous autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale L.) look totally different: they are thin, long and lanceolate and have no leaf stem, but grow from the stems that remain in the soil. The autumn crocus’s leaves are flexible, almost rubber-like, and, unlike wild garlic, do not break when fresh. These leaves have no clearly visible ribbed leaves, as opposed to wild garlic. They are difficult to almost impossible to grind between the fingers. The leaves of the autumn crocus are odourless. But beware: the penetrating garlic smell of earlier samples of real wild garlic might still stick to the fingers and can be misleading when sampling other leaves. Thus, always consider looking for other distinguishing features.

Three to four autumn crocus leaves can be enough to cause death when eaten. Colchicine, the cell toxin contained in the leaves, takes effect only after several hours. The first symptoms are nausea and vomiting, followed by diarrhoea. The toxin destroys intestinal, blood and bone marrow cells, which could end fatally after about two days.

Lily of the Valley

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Lily of the Valley
Maiglöckchen

Fortunately, mixing up wild garlic with lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis L.) usually has less serious effects. Life-threatening poisonings are rare.

Lily of the valley can be found mostly in dry locations and the leaves sprout somewhat later than the first wild garlic leaves.

They usually have two to three basic leaves forming a leaf sheath. The apparent stem is green at the top and reddish at the bottom and the lily of the valley lamina shimmer light green on the underside. The leaves are flexible, almost rubber-like.

Just as the autumn crocus, the leaves of lily of the valley do not smell of garlic.

Lily of the valley contains cardiac glycosides causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and different levels of heart palpitations.

 

 

Arum Maculatum

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Arum Maculatum and Wild Garlic

The veins on the leaves of cuckoo pint or lords-and-ladies (Arum macalatum L.) are arranged in a grid-like pattern that is in contrast to the parallel veins of wild garlic. This grid-like structure is particularly visible on the leaves’ underside. Older plants have characteristic arrow-shaped leaves, a feature that is not quite as strong in younger plants.

Cuckoo pint has a strong acrid taste and causes serious irritations of the skin and mucous membranes. The toxic effect is attributed to “volatile spicy, hot substances”. Its poisonous effect is felt immediately, causing burns to the oral mucosa.

 

 

 

Solomon’s Seal

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vielblütiger Weißwurz
vielblütiger Weißwurz

Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum multiflorum L.) grows at similar times and near similar plants like wild garlic.

The individual leaves have also a similar shape to those of the wild garlic plant. The decisive distinguishing feature is that the leaves are arranged alternately on the stem and its white flowers hang from the branch like small bells.

All parts of this plant are poisonous, especially the berries, which contain saponines and other toxic substances. Older claims about contents of cardiac glycosides have not been confirmed to date.

 

 

Poisonous Garden Tulip

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Tulpe
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Tulpenaustrieb
Tulpe

The leaves of the poisonous garden tulip (Tulipa L.-Hybride), which can sometimes grow in the wild, could also be mistaken for the leaves of the wild garlic plant.

The tulip grows only one leaf as long as it does not flower, which is similar to that of wild garlic. People cultivating wild garlic in their gardens should be careful not to pick tulip leaves, too. The leaf of the tulip is separated into a lanceolate lamina and thin leaf stem, just like wild garlic. However, its leaves are thick and fleshy and of blue-green colour with a wax-like coat.

Symptoms such as salivation, nausea, vomiting, stomach ache and diarrhoea can occur as soon as 15 minutes after ingestion.

The Fox as Disease Carrier

AGES recommends washing wild garlic leaves thoroughly before using them.

The reason: there has been an increase in alerts that wild garlic leaves could be contaminated with the cysts of the fox tapeworm. These could cause life-threatening diseases with tumour-like proliferations, mainly in the liver, which are noticed only many years after infection.

The cysts of the fox tapeworm are not visible to the naked eye and usually survive the standard freezer temperature of -18° Celsius. The cysts are killed at temperatures around +60° Celsius.
However, AGES recommends washing wild garlic leaves individually under running, hot water before eating or freezing them, to enjoy the full vitamin C content of wild garlic.

Recommendations for picking and cooking with wild garlic

  • Leaves should be picked individually.
  • Yanking out entire bundles at once bears the risk of also taking leaves not fit for consumption. 
  • Wild garlic pickers should know the plant and its features well to distinguish it clearly from similar, poisonous plants. 
  • If you are not sure, keep your hands off wild garlic and buy it at a store. 
  • Wash wild garlic leaves individually and thoroughly under running, hot water before using or freezing them. 

What to do when poisoned

Should poisoning occur it is recommended to visit a doctor immediately and consult the poison control centre at the Vienna General Hospital (Wiener AKH -- 01/406 43 43).

The following information is vital:

  • Details on the poisoned individual (age, sex, weight) 
  • What and how much was ingested? 
  • When and where did it occur?

Do not take so-called household remedies such as water or milk without consulting a doctor first! Causing a person to vomit could be also very dangerous!

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