There is one wild edible plant that I can count on finding in BK even during the coldest weeks of winter: field garlic, a.k.a. Allium vineale.
I’ve heard it called onion grass, wild onion, wild garlic and wild chives. Allium vineale does grow in clumps of linear leaves that can look like blades of grass from a distance. Unlike grass or other wild edible Alliums, field garlic leaves are round and hollow, like chives.
The first rule of foraging is to be 100% certain of your identification, and there aren’t many general rules to make that easier, but here is one: anything that smells like onions or garlic is edible.
I am big on scratch-and-sniff as a foraging skill. With field garlic it is especially important because there are poisonous plants that novice foragers might confuse with Allium vineale or other edible alliums.
In BK, the most common of these is Star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum)., often planted as an ornamental. Fortunately, it is easy to confirm your ID: the edible alliums smell like onions or garlic, the poisonous “lookalikes” are scentless.
How to Use Field Garlic Leaves
Throughout the winter, the tender leaves are the part I use most often because they are easy to spot even when they are peeking out above a layer of snow. Cooked, I use the leaves to flavor soups and sauces. Raw, I use them minced in any of the ways that I would use fresh chives.
Harvesting tip: Harvest field garlic leaves for eating when they are small and tender. They look something like spindly grass at this stage. Larger field garlic leaves are too tough to eat, but still good to use as an aromatic in meat, poultry, or vegetable stock.
How to Clean Field Garlic Bulbs Without Driving Yourself Insane
When the ground is thawed enough to dig, you can harvest the small bulbs. These have a more pungent, garlicky flavor than the leaves.
A big field garlic bulb is only about the size of a pinky fingernail. Most are smaller, so you can imagine how tedious they could be to clean and peel. Here’s an easy way around that:
Fill a large bowl with water. Swish the field garlic bulbs around vigorously to release any dirt clinging to them. Repeat with fresh water until all the dirt is gone.
Slice off the green leaves and reserve for another use. Cut off the stringy roots (this isn’t necessary unless there is still some stubborn dirt clinging to them).
Press the field garlic bulbs – skins, roots and all – through a garlic press. Use the puree that comes through and discard the rest (by the way, I am not usually a big fan of using a garlic press. But with field garlic it is a real time saver).
Harvesting tip: The bigger the leaves, the bigger the bulbs will be. When the bulbs are what you’re after, look for clumps of field garlic with at least a few leaves that look more like small scallions than like chives.
More ID Info
Allium vineale flowers, if they appear, are like little pompoms of lavender tubular florets. Often there are few flowers and instead clumps of bulblets. Frequently these sprout while still above ground. What happens is that when the clump of sprouting bulblets gets heavy enough, it bends the stalk it is on and falls to the ground. There it sprouts roots and forms a new plant. You can use the clumps of bulblets to make field garlic vinegar. Use the same method that you would for making infused vinegar from fresh herbs.
Field garlic is tolerant of a variety of growing conditions, but prefers partial shade or part sun. It is often found on slopes or under trees that are near a field or path. It grows in all of Brooklyn’s parks, most community gardens and most backyards (yes, even in somewhat shady brownstone gardens).
Field garlic is available from fall through early spring. Once temperatures start to seriously warm up for summer, the entire plant dies back to the ground and isn’t visible again until things cool off in the fall.
Smashed Potatoes with Field Garlic
1 3/4 lb. small Yukon gold or other potatoes, scrubbed clean but skins left on*
6 tsp. pressed field garlic pulp
1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. butter
1/2 c. sour cream OR thick Greek or strained yogurt
Salt and pepper to taste
Minced tender field garlic leaves
Cover the potatoes with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and cook until the potatoes fall apart when pierced with a fork.
Use a slotted spoon to transfer the potatoes to a large bowl. Reserve the cooking water.
Mash the potatoes with a potato masher, leaving a few lumps – smashed potatoes are best if they’re not completely smooth. Mash in all of the other ingredients except the field garlic leaves, adding a little of the potato cooking water if the mixture seems thicker than you’d like.
Serve hot with the minced field garlic leaves sprinkled on top.
*At this time of year, all of the locally grown potatoes we get in Brooklyn are storage crops from last year’s harvest. At some point the skins start to look greenish and the potatoes may begin to sprout. If they are at that stage, it’s best to peel the potatoes before cooking. The greenish layer under the skin isn’t just not tasty; it’s actually somewhat toxic.
Leda Meredith is the author of The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget. She is the Gardening Program Coordinator for Adult Education at the New York Botanical Garden and an instructor specializing in edible and medicinal plants at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Info on her many upcoming classes and events can be found on her blog at www.ledameredith.com