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A Wild Harvest of Ramsons

Thick patch of green ramsons leaves and white star-shaped flowers in woodland
Ramsons flowers

An amble deep into the forest is always full of unexpected finds. Unless you leave the well-trodden path there's so much of the woodland that stays hidden from human eyes. Every deer and animal track leads to another undiscovered world of new plants and trees, and stumbling across these is one of the joys of woodlarking.

We've walked the same path a thousand times but after each journey we come away having seen something new, whether it's fungi, that patch of moss or lichen growing on a dead branch, plants, ancient trees, birds or a hidden badger sett. Every season something changes, places get taken back by Mother Nature, or a tree falls and opens up a whole new area. Behind those big old trees, plants wait to be discovered, and one of the best at this time of year is the ramson - wild garlic.

Spotted green leaf of Lords and Ladies plant camouflaged amongst ramsons leaves
Lords and Ladies leaf hiding amongst ramsons

The scent of ramsons fills the air long before it's spotted, garlicky and strong. It grows in large, sometimes quite vast, dense patches in the damper parts of the woodland - large green leaves, and then clusters of white flowers as the season gets underway.

The ramsons leaves emerge around the same time as the leaves of bluebells and Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum). For the unwary and unwise, it's all too easy to include these in overly enthusiastic pickings as they look similar at first glance. Both the bluebell and arum leaves are toxic though so always be sure of your plant ID and school yourself on lookalikes. Lords and Ladies can sometimes show themselves with darker spots on the leaves but not always.

Large patch of thick green ramsons leaves in woodland
Ramsons patch in woodland

Ramsons are known by many names and in many places. Ramps is commonly heard, and is a name which seems to have spread around the world - probably taken to new parts when people emigrated at various points in history. The Latin name, Allium ursinum translates as the common name of bear garlic, stemming from the belief that bears ate it to regain their strength after a winter of sleep. Continuing the animal theme, badger's flowers (Wiltshire) reveals that they, along with squirrels and wild boar are known to dig and eat the bulbs.

Most of the names are variations on ramsons to some degree: buckrams, ram's horns (Gloucestershire), rommy or roms (Yorkshire), rosems (Staffordshire) and ramsden (Isle of Wight). Other local names refer to the garlic or onion scent - Gypsy's onions (southern England), stink plant (Lincolnshire), stinking Jenny and onion stinkers (both Somerset).

Freshly gathered white ramsons with roots and green leaves
Ramsons bulbs

Ramsons have been known since ancient times. A late Mesolithic (middle Stone Age) site at Halsskov, Denmark revealed the charred remains of ramsons bulbs, pignut tubers, and yellow pond lily seeds all found together within pit-cooking depressions. The Egyptians first wrote about it four thousand years ago, and the Greek physician Hippocrates made reference to what was probably ramsons too.

The Saxons knew the plant as white leeks and regarded it as a healing herb. The garlic family in general is known to have anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-parasitic and anti-viral effects so it's no wonder that ramsons has a history of being used to treat all manner of complaints from lung problems through to ridding the intestines of worms (in horses as well as people according to old accounts of uses).

Star-like white ramsons flower again fresh green leaves
Starry white ramsons flower

A recounting from the 1930s tells of the bulbs being dug when they first sprouted in the springtime. They were cleaned, sun-dried, and then packed into jars with dark brown sugar. Rum was then poured over the top and it was stored in a dark cupboard until winter when it was used as a syrup against coughs and chesty colds.

Irish folklore texts tell of a strong history of using ramsons for an incredibly wide range of uses. The bulbs of ramsons were planted in the thatch over the door of Irish cottages to bring good luck, and it was long regarded there as an important wild food, along with watercress and wild sorrel. The leaves were sometimes wrapped around butter which was then submerged into bogs, perhaps to preserve it, perhaps as an offering.

Sag aloo in a pan made from potatoes with green ramsons leaves
Woodlarker's sag aloo

Continuing today, the leaves make a tasty addition to a wide range of dishes - shredded into salads, added to omelettes, used as a flavouring for oils, or used to make a beautifully coloured garlic butter. It can be used in the same way as spinach in a hedge-gathered sag aloo - perfect for filling hungry bellies after a day in the forest. The flowers are particularly punchy and strong-flavoured and a small amount used as a garnish will add quite a zing.

Ramsons are at their prime right now in the earlier days of April, but as the wild garlic season goes on then it's always wise to watch as the leaves turn, they can have a yellow tinge to them. Be choosy with the ones you do pick,and get the freshest, greenest ones you can see. Search underneath the older bigger leaves for the smaller ones hidden away, these will probably be the best. As a guide the younger, more slender leaves could be used in a salad, the larger still-green leaves maybe into a pesto. A brilliant way to make sure you have a supply for several months is to chop and freeze the leaves in ice cube trays with a little water.

A good recipe to really show off the colour and flavour of ramsons is pesto. As ever, be completely sure of your plant ID and always collect with care and respect for the land - better to collect sparingly from a large area than to wipe out a small patch. The pesto can be stirred through pasta, used as a dip for crusty fresh bread, drizzled over salads, used as a filling for chicken kievs, or with fish. It also looks particularly good swirled into mashed potato.

Basket of green ramsons leaves with bowls of pine nuts, grated cheese, sea salt and a bottle of olive oil
Ingredients for Woodlarker's Pesto

Woodlarker's Wild Garlic Pesto

100 -150g ramsons leaves, roughly shredded 50g parmesan, finely grated 50g pine nuts, hazelnuts or walnuts (or a mixture) Olive oil Zest of 1/2 lemon Fresh lemon juice to taste Salt to taste

This recipe is written for making in a food processor, but it can also be made more traditionally using a pestle and mortar. The amounts given are just a rough guide so adapt them as you wish.

Close up of bright green pureed ramsons pesto in a sealed Kilner jar
Zingy green pesto made from fresh ramsons leaves

1. Wash the ramsons leaves well, double-checking that they are all indeed ramsons leaves, and removing any bits of woodland which have also been gathered. Place the leaves in your food processor and whizz until they're broken down.

2. Add the grated parmesan and whizz again.

3. Add the nuts. Whizz those into the mixture whilst drizzling olive oil in to achieve your desired consistency.

4. Add salt, lemon zest and lemon juice to taste.

Store in clean, covered containers or jars in the fridge for up to a couple of weeks.


As with any foraging, take only what you need and BE VERY CAREFUL when gathering! It's always worth remembering, everything is edible, though some things only once!

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1 Comment

Such a lovely article! Thank you for useful recipes!

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