This garlic relative, which my family calls “onion grass.” isn’t a true grass—though it does look like grass to my toddler! More properly called “wild garlic,” Allium vineale can be substituted for either garlic or onion in the kitchen, if you’re willing to take the extra time to clean its tiny bulbs.
Like its common culinary relatives in the family tree, wild garlic shares a host of health-boosting properties for a long list of body systems: immune, digestive, circulatory and respiratory.
Farm-raised garlic and onion, as well as their wild great-great-grandparents (pictured here), are all in the Allium subgroup of the Lily family. Allium is the old language for “garlic” in Latin and Greek. Many of these plants are used interchangeably with one or more species likely to be found wild in most environments.
One way I help my kid identify wild garlic (making sure she shows me before she puts it in her mouth) is the round, hollow leaf, which looks like a stem. Even without inspecting for this, though, you’ll find wild garlic’s distinctive smell is an obvious indicator. The hollow vs. “flat” leaf shape helps you distinguish between wild garlic and actual onion grass. Check out this tiny guide.
It can be hard for some to tell the difference between onion and garlic aromas. But if you smell either onion or garlic when you crush the leaves and bulbs, your plant is likely edible.
Beware of Imitators
Be absolutely sure that smell is there, though.
Please note that the poisonous Death camas is a look-alike to the untrained eye. Especially if you are hunting other edible but non-garlicy flavored lilies, heed the words of author Thomas Elpel: “Virtually everything in the Lily subfamily is edible, such as onions and blue camas, however, there are a few deadly plants in the Bunchflower subfamily (with bunches of little white or greenish flowers), like the death camas which could easily be mistaken for edible Lilies. For this reason, it is important to harvest lilies for food only when you can positively identify them, usually when in bloom.”
And as I always add, when trying a wild plant for the first time, get a plant- knowledgeable buddy there to corroborate your findings before you eat it.
If it smells like an onion, and it looks like an onion, it’s probably an onion—or a garlic!
When my kitchen stores run out of garlic (which happens quite often), I just head out and look right around the house. (It’s also a fun excuse to teach a kid how to eat wild food.)
These green shoots are so bright in the winter landscape! After a dry spell, the rain will also bring a pungent garlic flavor to the air around—even before you touch them. Let your nose guide you, or look for the green-green tufted bunches of chive-resemblance. Slide a long trowel or Hori Hori down deep right beside the edge of the clump. Then rock around the clump a bit from side to side and tilt.
Whether you’ll be able to slide the roots and bulbs right up and out depends on your rain supply and current soil conditions. On a dry day you’ll likely end up with a clump of dirt from which to wriggle the bulbs free.
Once again we are harvesting an herb that self-sows aplenty and that we can eat freely without conservation woes. This time of year, seeds have likely dropped. If you can find a bunch with its long brown dried flower stalk hanging on (probably headless), you’ll know you’ve got a bigger bulb waiting below.
That’s important because, if you’re thinking of farm-bought garlic, these wild bulbs—even when all grown up—are still teeny-tiny versions of the commercially traded varieties. They make up for the size difference in flavor, though. You can even skip the paper peeling step, as their little translucent moist “skins” will usually melt away in a stir fry. And their outer brown skins usually peel back as you lift your harvest, falling away on their own.
Chew on any part of the plant and consider them for use in a dish. I use the bulbs and leaves as I would green onion or chives.
Depending on the environmental conditions, wild garlic will be more flavorful when it’s had to work harder to make its living. Like many wild foods, garlic grown in the compost may have less aroma than, say, the same plant grown in your driveway. But as always stay clear of chemically treated areas and places where chemicals run off or pool (like your driveway).
For many, this plant is a wanted target for eradication. Its long competitive leaves rise easily above common mowed grass, standing out well. This is bad for manicurists but great for foragers. It’s wise, though, to know the history of treatment for any place you choose to harvest.
A Word About Gratitude
Remember to bring gratitude to your plate and your acts. Pat yourself on the back for having gotten here and for what you are about to do in this modern world. Foraging is primitive and skillful, and it took instinct, desire and knowledge to bring this bright green clump of aromatic, delicious chive-looking garlic-oniony treats into your home.
So please just sit and breathe with the plant for a minute.
Try to count to 60 while you really look at it. Take in what you are about to do to transform it. Then thank the garlic (or onion) for persisting through mowers, drought, rock, clay, depleted soil and drastic climate transitions to offer you its strength and vitality.
A Beneficial Bulb
These amazing spices are not just common for their culinary delights. Like most spices used in cooking, they have health benefits as well. (See below for a DIY earache remedy using garlic or onion.)
Your respiratory tracts and blood circulation get a boost with garlic’s help. And those distinguishing aromas are vapors that irritate many pathogens—including bacteria, viruses and even parasites—as the chemicals from the plant come in contact with tissues in the gut, intestines, sinuses and pores.
So these wild garlic relatives can thwart invaders while they stimulate your innate immune response. That’s why onion and garlic are base ingredients for the increasingly popular DIY folk remedy/ panacea known as “fire cider”.
Onion as a Home Remedy for Earache
You can make this simple home remedy for ear pain with wild onion or wild garlic, or even farm- or grocery-bought onion!
Most commonly, people use a whole onion, heating a bulb in the oven or microwave until it’s piping hot. Cut in half.
Drop one half of the onion into a canning jar, cut side up. Let the steam rise upright, then lean your ear over the jar. Get as close as you can comfortably withstand, trying to cover the jar with your ear.
Stay in this position for as long as you feel the rising heat.
As an alternative to ear oil, this method allows heat and vapor to enter the ear without mucking about with solids. The heat and steam itself does wonders to soothe an achy ear, while the antimicrobial volatiles can enter the sinuses and ear canal to ward off infection.