How to forage for wild garlic

by Henry Coldstream 11 March 2022

For just a few months every year the instantly recognisable scent of wild garlic fills the air of forests, gardens and woodland around the UK, proving irresistible to even novice foragers. We guide you through everything you need to know about foraging for wild garlic, from where to find it to how to prepare it once you get it home.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs. Having previously written pieces for a variety of online food publications, he joined the team in 2021 and helps with all editorial aspects of the site. When not writing, Henry can usually be found eating and drinking his way through London's many restaurants and bars, or cooking in his kitchen at home.

The turn of spring brings with it a bounty of fresh produce – but few are more representative of the season than wild garlic. Wonderfully versatile and particularly pungent, these distinct flowering plants (also known as ransoms) can cover woodland floors like a blanket for a few months each year. This makes wild garlic a brilliant starting point for those who want to give foraging a try. Its short but sweet season means your window of opportunity is slim, but the abundance of wild garlic means there's plenty of it up for grabs.

When is wild garlic in season?

Although the times can vary slightly each year due to the weather, wild garlic leaves tend to begin appearing in early March, with its flowers emerging a month or two later. By June, it's usually gone. If it’s wild garlic leaves you’re looking for, it’s best to pick them earlier on in the season whilst they're still young and packed full of fresh flavour – older leaves tend to become more astringent and bitter (although they're still perfectly edible and suitable for cooking). Later on in the season it’s well worth picking wild garlic flowers, as they also have all sorts of uses in the kitchen and make a pretty garnish that tastes as good as it looks.

Where to find wild garlic

Truth be told there aren’t many parts of the UK where wild garlic can’t be found somewhere nearby during spring. Typically growing in deciduous woodlands, the two key conditions that ramsons thrive in are shade and damp ground, but they also prefer slightly acidic soil. This means they often grow in similar areas to bluebells, which is another clue as to where you might find some. Generally when you do stumble upon wild garlic, there will be a lot of it, with dense patches covering large areas of the forest floor. It's not uncommon to catch a whiff of garlic in the air, look down at your feet and realise you're surrounded by the stuff.

What does wild garlic look like?

Depending on how early in the season you’re planning on foraging, you should either be keeping your eyes peeled for wild garlic leaves or for its flowers. The plant’s bright green and long pointed leaves have flat edges and are relatively distinct, but to double check it’s always worth crushing a leaf in your hands and giving it a sniff – you should get an instant strong hit of garlic. People have been known to confuse it with Lily of the Valley (which happens to be poisonous!), so always give it the smell test and never consume any leaves you're not 100% sure of. Wild garlic's white star-shaped flowers grow in clusters and make beautiful garnishes, but the number of flowers also act as a good marker of the age of the plant. Wild garlic plants with more flowers tend to be older, meaning the leaves may be more bitter in flavour.

How to pick wild garlic

Once you’ve successfully managed to track down a patch of wild garlic, the temptation might be to immediately start picking as much as you can – but there are a few guidelines it’s worth following both for your and the plant’s benefit. Firstly, unless you have the permission of the land owner, never dig up the actual bulbs of wild garlic as it's illegal. Removing the bulbs means the plant won't return the following year, and there's no real reason to remove them as they don't really have any culinary use. Wherever possible you should also try to pick leaves here and there from different areas rather than stripping a particular plant in its entirety, as this stifle growth too. It’s also worth being as careful as possible when handling any picked leaves in order to avoid bruising, and it's usually a good idea to avoid picking leaves that are near paths or other areas which dogs might use as a toilet!

How to store wild garlic

After you’ve brought your freshly picked wild garlic home, the first thing you should do is give it a quick wash to remove any small bugs and insects. Pat the leaves dry and then refrigerate them in a sealed bag. Even once refrigerated, you should use your wild garlic within a couple of days to ensure it’s as fresh as possible – although there are many ways you can preserve the leaves for use throughout the year (see below)

Can you freeze wild garlic?

Given how seasonal wild garlic is, you may wonder how it can be used outside of spring. Something that a lot of chefs do is freeze wild garlic, either whole or chopped up and frozen into ice cube trays, so that it can be used right the way through the year. You shouldn’t freeze wild garlic for longer than six months but up until then, it should retain both its freshness and its nutrients. Other common ways of preserving the flavour of wild garlic include making wild garlic oil or adding the leaves to ferments and pickles.

How to use wild garlic

From pestos to pasta doughs, served raw or cooked into dishes, wild garlic is an incredibly versatile ingredient and a great way of instantly adding flavour to your food. Check out our guide on how to cook wild garlic to find out more about its many uses and get some recipe inspiration.