Friday, May 31, 2013

Foraging Wild Onion and Garlic- Allium Family- Free Foods

 photo 100_7126_zpsb142b85e.jpgMy favorite type of stuff to forage are those things that replace the stuff that I would be using anyhow. Therefore, when I first discovered wild onion/garlic 3 months ago upon a visit to my sister, I was ecstatic, and since then, I've found two more types growing close to home. Wild onions or garlic? you probably want to know, and the answer is both and neither. What I've found is plants in the allium family, which is the same family as garlic, onions, shallots, chives, leeks, etc...
Each member of the allium family has a somewhat different taste, but all have a taste that is either garlicky or oniony or both, and with varying ranges of sharpness.
But all allium family members are edible, and most can be used in place of onion.

Allium members are healing to the body and are antimicrobial. The whole entire plant is edible (though some parts become to fibrous to be enjoyable to eat, once they're older), and they can be eaten raw or cooked.

There are no poisonous look alikes once you look for a few basic markers about the plant.

How to Identify Wild Onion and Garlic

We grew chives in our backyard growing up. We'd have these tall, thin, circular, hollow grasses that tasted very much like spring onions, and then at the end of the season, they'd send up a larger, thicker stalk upon which would grow a purple ball made out of a bunch of tiny six petaled purple flowers.

This is typical of an allium. Alliums have one central stalk that comes up, upon which there is a whole bunch of "spokes", called umbels, upon which there are a bunch of tiny six petals flowers. These usually are white or purple, but its possible that there are also in other colors.

They can be a very tight ball with many flowers, or they can even look more like a broom top.

Here are a few examples of allium flowers that I've found.

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The leaves of allium can either be rounded, like chives or scallions, or can be flat like leek. But they all have smooth edges and grow either from the ground up, or are clasped around the main stem and then diverge. There are no branching stems off the main ones- all leaves start from a central point.
In many species, by the time the flower appears, the leaves of the allium have all dried up, but in some cases they don't.

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Most allium leaves are smooth, but some are slightly hairy like in the above picture.

Nearly all alliums have bulbs, like onions or garlic, if you manage to pull them out of the ground carefully.

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But many times you pull out the plant and the bulb stays within, so you can't see the bulb, but that's ok- that's not needed for identification.

The most pivotal piece of information you need to determine if this is an allium or not is the smell. Does it smell sharp and oniony or garlicky, or similar?
If it does smell that way and it's got the right type of flowers, its an allium- the rest of the identifying details will help confirm it, but aren't vital.

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There are some alliums such as ramps that people pick when they aren't flowering, but since ramps don't grow in my area (that I know of), I don't know specifics about how to identify them, but smelling of onion or garlic with the bulb is a big indicator of edibility.

What do they taste like?

This really depends on the exact species. Some are tastier than others.
If you scroll to the top, the first flower picture I showed when teaching to identify tastes like onions, but with a slight "stinky sweat" aftertaste. Not my favorite allium, but its one that I found this morning so I had to pick it.
The next picture, the purple one, tastes very oniony. Your first bite tastes like it's mild and relatively flavorless, and then all of a sudden the flavor gets really, really intense, and it is quite spicy. This is called perennial leek.
The third picture is the first type of wild garlic I found, and it tastes like garlic. You expect it to taste like scallions,  but its very garlicky. It's more mild than fresh garlic, but still pretty flavorful. It wasn't too sharp- my kids enjoyed eating it raw.

How do you use wild alliums?

First, I think many of their flowers make a really beautiful garnish.

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You can peel the bulb and use it either raw or cooked.
You can break up the flower into little bits and spread it raw into your food, or cook it in.
If the plant is young and moist enough, you can chop up the leaves and the stems, and cook with it or use it in place of scallions. If it's dried out, don't use it for this.

My favorite ways I've used wild alliums was in place of scallions in eggplant salad, in place of scallions in tabouleh salad, on pizza together with butternut squash and clary sage, in bean soup, in mashed potatoes, in eggs, etc...

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Have you ever seen wild alliums growing? What type? Have you picked and used them? What do they taste like? Do you enjoy their flavor? What has been your favorite uses for alliums?


  1. This is great info, thank you for putting it together. Nice photos.

    I read the headline first as "Family-free foods." Which is good!

  2. If you save the root end that you cut off before using and bury it in a small amount of soil, it will re-grow. Even if you don't have pot space, you could certainly do this along a path you normally walk and then harvest from later.




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