How to Identify Field Garlic - Foraging for Wild Edible Plants
Field garlic, also known as crow garlic or stag's garlic, was one of the first wild foods I can remember encountering as a child. I must have been pretty young because my memory of it is very foggy.
I can remember noticing how much it looked and smelled like onions, but I’m pretty sure my parents told me it wasn’t edible.
Were they unaware that it’s actually a delicious and bountiful substitute for cultivated alliums, or were they just trying to prevent their child from putting things from the backyard in his mouth?
The specific species I’m interested in profiling here is known taxonomically as Allium vineale. Its common names can refer to several different species of Allium, all of which are edible, but A. vineale is perhaps the easiest to find in your immediate surroundings. I like the name 'crow garlic' because to my knowledge it doesn't refer to any other species, but 'field garlic' seems to be used more frequently in the wild food literature
As with all other members of the Allium genus, field garlic is easy to distinguish thanks to the compound allyl sulfide, also known as allicin, which gives it that characteristically pungent smell and taste. This sulfurous compound is also the source of garlic’s many medicinal uses, such as improving blood circulation and immune function.
Where to Find Field Garlic
A better question to ask might be, where can you not find field garlic? At least for us here in the Midwest, this stuff seems to pop up just about everywhere – lawns, garden beds, woodland edges, vacant urban lots and beyond. Field garlic reproduces in two ways: via aerial bulblets formed in the flower heads, and through underground bulbs that sprout adjacent to the parent plant. That’s why you’ll generally see it growing in patchy clusters wherever it’s found.
I should note that you will often see field garlic growing prolifically throughout conventional farm fields in winter and spring, when the land is otherwise barren. The plant’s unique physical properties—particularly its long, straight, waxy leaves—make it more or less impervious to chemical herbicides. Still, I wouldn’t recommend eating any plants, wild or otherwise, from such poison-ridden fields.
How to Identify Field Garlic
If you’re familiar with the appearance of chives then you should be able to spot field garlic from a mile away. Its hollow, gray-green leaves grow up to about a foot tall, emerging from dime-sized bulbs that resemble the cultivated green onions you’ll find at supermarkets.
You won’t often catch a glimpse of field garlic’s flowers, if only because the plants tend to get mowed down before they are able to bloom. Flowers grow in large, spherical clusters and are generally pinkish-purple.
Of course, the simplest way to be sure you’ve got an edible allium on your hands is to break off a leaf and give it a whiff. If it smells like garlic, it's safe to eat.
When to Look for Field Garlic
Field garlic is easiest to spot throughout winter and spring, when little else is growing around it. Here in the Midwest we generally see the first signs of field garlic in late winter. Its patchy clusters of waxy leaves will start to rise up from the ground as everything else is dying back. By March it is becoming more prominent on the landscape, and by May or June the bulbs begin to mature.
How to Harvest Field Garlic
Every part of the field garlic plant is edible, from its bulbs, to its leaves, to its flowers (if you’re lucky enough to come upon them).
To harvest the bulbs, you can try to pull the plant up out of the ground from the base of its leaves. Often a good tug or two is all you need if the ground is soft enough. But if you feel the leaves wanting to break, you can use a hand spade to dig it out instead.
Harvesting leaves and flowers is a simple matter of cutting or plucking however much you intend to use. Flavor can vary a bit from patch to patch, so it’s a good idea to sample a leaf before cutting the whole lot.
Wild foods have become pretty trendy in recent years, leading to problems of overharvesting in some regions of North America. But unlike, say, wild leeks (Allium triccoccum, also known as “ramps”), field garlic is under no threat of over-harvesting at all whatsoever, so it makes a great substitute for its more sought-after cousin.
In fact, as a prolific invasive weed, field garlic can be a huge problem for farmers in their pastures: when cows eat too much, it can add an off-taste to their milk.
How to Use Field Garlic
Use field garlic leaves wherever you would normally use chives or green onions.
Allium flowers, whether from field garlic or one of its relatives, make for a beautiful and delicious garnish in salads.
The opinion is split on the tastiness of field garlic bulbs. Some people will tell you that you should just stay away from them altogether, while others will insist that the haters are out of their minds!
As with the leaves, the flavor of the bulbs can vary a great deal between patches, so try a few before you commit to ‘em. Use the bulbs just like you would cloves of domesticated garlic.
Diving into the wonderful world of wild foods can be intimidating, especially if you don't have much experience working with plants.
That's why I wrote Introduction to Foraging: A Beginner's Guide to Gathering Wild Foods with Confidence - available now for just $6.
The book was written with the absolute beginner in mind, and with the goal of getting you out into the world gathering wild foods right away.
Introduction to Foraging goes into much greater detail on chickweed, garlic mustard, bittercress, and field garlic, as well as several other wild plants that are very common and very easy to identify.
To learn everything you need to know to begin foraging safely, sustainably, and confidently, check out my book here. Happy hunting!
By the way...
If you're looking for more help with wild plant identification, and you're wondering how to tie foraging into your local, seasonal diet, why not join us over in the Farm and Forage Challenge group on Facebook? You'll be able to connect with folks just like you and me all over the world who are eating seasonally from the landscapes that surround them. I hope to see you there!