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Allium ursinum – known as ramsons, buckrams, wild garlic, broad-leaved garlic, wood garlic, bear leek or bear's garlic – is a wild relative of chives native to Europe and Asia. The Latin name is due to the brown bear's taste for the bulbs and its habit of digging up the ground to get at them; they are also a favourite of wild boar. In Europe, where ramsons are popularly harvested from the wild, similarity to poisonous plants regularly leads to cases of poisoning.
Allium ursinum is widespread in nature across most of Europe. It grows in deciduous woodlands with moist soils, preferring slightly acidic conditions. It flowers before deciduous trees leaf in the spring, filling the air with their characteristic garlic-like scent. The flower stem is triangular in cross-section and the leaves are broadly lanceolate similar to those of the lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis). Unlike the related Allium vineale (crow garlic) and Allium oleraceum (field garlic), the umbel contains no bulbils, only flowers. In the British Isles, colonies are frequently associated with bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), especially in ancient woodland. It is considered to be an Ancient Woodland Indicator (AWI) species.
The leaves of A. ursinum are edible; they can be used as salad, herb, boiled as a vegetable, in soup, or as an ingredient for pesto in lieu of basil. The stems are preserved by salting and eaten as a salad in Russia. A variety of Cornish Yarg cheese has a rind coated in wild garlic leaves. The bulbs and flowers are also edible.
The leaves are also used as fodder. Cows that have fed on ramsons give milk that tastes slightly of garlic, and butter made from this milk used to be very popular in 19th-century Switzerland.
The first evidence of the human use of A. ursinum comes from the Mesolithic settlement of Barkær (Denmark), where an impression of a leaf has been found. In the Swiss Neolithic settlement of Thayngen-Weier (Cortaillod culture) there is a high concentration of pollen from A. ursinum in the settlement layer, interpreted by some as evidence for the use of A. ursinum as fodder.
Similarity to poisonous plants
The leaves of A. ursinum are easily mistaken for Lily of the Valley, sometimes also those of Colchicum autumnale and Arum maculatum. All three are poisonous; potentially deadly incidents occur almost every year. Grinding the leaves between the fingers and checking for a garlic-like smell can be helpful, but if the smell remains on the hands, one can easily mistake a subsequent poisonous plant for bear garlic. When the leaves of Allium ursinum and Arum maculatum first sprout they look similar, but unfolded Arum maculatum leaves have irregular edges and many deep veins while ramsons leaves are convex with a single main vein. The leaves of Lily of the Valley come from a single purple stem, while the leaves of A. ursinum have individual green-coloured stems.
In popular culture
In Season 1 Episode 3 "The Way Out" of the TV series Outlander, two boys fall ill after mistaking lily of the valley for edible wood garlic in the ruins of a monastery. Series protagonist Claire Beauchamp Randall, with her 20th century knowledge of botany and medicine, correctly identifies it and successfully treats the poison. Although she notes that lily of the valley is not native to the Scottish setting, her companion Jamie Fraser confirms her theory that the monks were originally from Prussia (Germany).
- Allium tricoccum - North American wild leek (or "ramps", a cognate of "ramsons")
- Allium ampeloprasum - Eurasian broadleaf wild leek
- Allium victorialis
- List of Allium species
- Kew World Checklist of Selected Plant Families
- GRIN-CA, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
- Risk of mix-up with bear's garlic - BfR warns pickers about fatal consequences of mistaking free-growing poisonous plants for bear’s garlic, German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment; 2005
- Altervista Flora Italiana, Aglio orsino, bear garlic Allium ursinum includes photos and European distribution map
- Reader's Digest Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain. Reader's Digest. 1981. p. 383. ISBN 9780276002175.
- British Wildlife - April 1999 - Francis Rose, Indicators of ancient woodland: The use of vascular plants in evaluating ancient woods for nature conservation, p. 246
- Johannes Seidemann (2005). World spice plants. Springer. p. 27. ISBN 978-3-540-22279-8. Retrieved 13 April 2011.
- Institut Fur Pflanzengenetik Und Kulturpflanzenforschung Gatersleben (COR) (11 May 2001). Mansfeld's Encyclopedia of Agricultural and Horticultural Crops: (Except Ornamentals). Springer. pp. 2251–. ISBN 978-3-540-41017-1. Retrieved 13 April 2011.
- British Cheese Board - Lynher Farms & Dairies: Cornish Yarg
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