Allium ursinum - Ramsons or Wild Garlic

Ramsons (Allium ursinum) - a member of the onion family - are one of the special wild food plants. They grow in woods, banks and shady, damp places. They like loamy soil, mildly acid to chalky.

I first sampled Ramsons on a picnic in Devon. My young son was with us, fishing in the river with a net. For lunch, we sat on an island in the middle of this tinkling stream. We had ham sandwiches into which we put fresh-picked leaves as we ate. The fresh garlicy taste of the ramsons leaf complimented the sandwiches admirably.

My wife and I liked them so much, we brought some baby plants home from Devon where they still grace a shady corner of our garden, though the garden is not ideal for them and they do not grow as lush as they can. The one in the photo has grown from seeds scattered in a local 'likely place' and I am pleased to see that they are naturalising nicely there as the photo shows. However - the location is not quite ideal as they do not well compete with the cow parsley and nettles which abound there. I am glad to see that they compete well with the ivy though!

Our supply is still limited: they are so special as a sandwich garnish that we use them for little else. Occasionally we add some to a salad. Roger Philips in his book, Wild Food, says that they do not cook well as they loose their flavour, so it's a plant for sandwich garnish and salads.


Distribution

Ramsons have a wide distribution throughout UK, but they prefer wetter areas so there are areas of the country where it is not common. Certainly in East Anglia, it is quite rare - we lack woods and have low rainfall. It tends to grow most lush on wood edges where there is adequate light and moisture.

Cultivation

Either you live in a place where ramsons are common enough to be a pest or you live somewhere where they are uncommon. If the former - you need no hints, so (as they are very uncommon in East Anglia) I'll only consider how to grow them in difficult places.

For a plant to grow successfully, it has to have adequate soil conditions, lighting and water. It also has to be able to compete against other plants. So very often where you find a plant is not where growth conditions are ideal for it - but where is can survive better than its competition. Ramsons are no different.

They do best in damp conditions and partial shade. The Cotswolds near Great Witcombe abound with Ramsons. Photo 2 shows them carpeting the woodand floor, on the north east edge of Cooper's Hill Wood. Wood edge, but out of bright sun. Heavy ground cover plants don't do so well where it's so dark. But photo 3 is a roadside ditch east of Gt. Witcombe. Photo was taken at 08:52, so they are in the shade of the hedge for much of the day, but the roadside verge is busy! Photo6 is in the Forest of Dean.

The rest of the photos are of a naturalization experiment I did at Burwell - Spring Close. I did not record the date of the original seeding but my first photographs of it in flower are in 2001, so it would have been 1999 (or even 1998). The plants must have been 2 or 3 years old. However, although soil and dampness are clearly fine, the area is overgrown with nettles and ivy but the ramsons are quite equal to the task and seem to be winning.

Our own garden patch has been growing since the late 1980s. It grows, we have lots of ramsons, but they do not last very long and do not get very lush. They are in the dampest part of our dry garden, against a north facing wall, so the conditions are as good as we can get. The main problem is dryness: it seems fairly certain that the bulbs do not do very well when dormant if the greound is too dry. The moats are nearby, same soil, but there is a natural spring there, so moist soil all year. The problem at Burwell moats clearly is competition. I suppose partial or dappled shade is also needed - full sunlight would certainly speed up drying out.

Seasons

Ramsons are, like other alliums, bulb producers. The bulbs stay dormant in summer, autumn and winter and spring into life in early spring. In May they are in full flower and seeds then develop and drop in late June to early July. The leaves die back as the seeds develop and then the plant goes dormant.

So if you want seeds, look for them at the end of June to early July.

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Page first published 20th May, 2001.
Last modified: Fri, 21 Apr 2017 12:14:06 BST4
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