Allium ursinum, known as ramsons or wild-, broad-leaved-, wood- or bear's garlic, is a monocot bulb-forming perennial plant native to Europe and Northern Asia, related to garlic (A. sativum) and chives (A. schoenoprasum). The Latin species epithet, “ursinum,” refers to bears—according to legend, ramsons is the first plant bears eat when they emerge from hibernation.
Ramsons have broad leaves, to 4 cm wide and 30 cm long. Bulbs form from the base of a single leaf petiole (Tutin 1957). Plants typically have 2 or 3 leaves, but older, well-established plants may have more (Ernst 1977). The plants flower before deciduous trees leaf out in the spring. The scapes (leafless flower stems) are two- or three-angled, and the umbellate garlic-scented flowers produce capsules with seeds, rather than bulbils (aerial bulblets) typical of related species such as crow garlic (A. vineale) and field garlic (A. oleraceum).
Ramsons grow in deciduous woodlands with moist soils, and often occur in monotypic stands, reproducing vegetatively as well as by seed. Observers have suggested that ramsons may inhibit competitors by producing allelopathic chemicals (toxic to other plants); like other members of the genus, the species produces organic disulphides that can inhibit plant growth. Ernst (1977), however, did not find evidence of allelopathy, but found that the heavy seeds, which are dispersed close to parent plants, have a low self-thinning rate, which could lead to dense stands.
Ramsons leaves are edible and are used as a salad, an herb to flavor other dishes, 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 (Wikipedia 2011). Flowers or buds can be eaten in salad, and the bulbs are also edible. In Germany, ramsons are eaten as a spring tonic, to cleanse the system.
Ramsons produce sulfide compounds similar to those found in garlic and onions, and appear to have similar medicinal effects, including antifungal and antimicrobial properties and cardiovascular benefits (Fern 2011, Koch and Lawson 1996). Studies have documented that its antiplatelet activity (which guards against cardiovascular disease), is similar to that of garlic (Hiyasat et al. 2009), and that it may reduce cardiac arrhythmias (Rietz et al. 1993).
Ramsons have increased in popularity in recent years, and are widely collected from the wild in northern Europe. The plants are grown in home gardens (from bulbs or seed), but not commercially.
Ramsons leaves are sometimes mistaken for those of three unrelated toxic and potentially deadly plants: lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis); autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale); and wild arum (Arum maculatum). In contrast to the poisonous species, ramsons leaves emit a garlic smell when broken or rubbed. Ramsons leaves each emerge from a separate green stem, whereas Convallaria majalis leaves grow on a single purple stem, and Colchicum autumnale leaves grow in a whorl from a single base. Arum maculatum have irregular edges and many deep veins, while ramsons leaves are convex with a single main vein (Wikipedia 2011).
Ramsons (Allium ursinum) (also known as buckrams, wild garlic, broad-leaved garlic, wood garlic or bear's garlic) is a wild relative of chives. 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 favorite of wild boar.
Ramsons grow in deciduous woodlands with moist soils, preferring slightly acidic conditions. They flower before deciduous trees leaf in the spring, filling the air with their characteristic garlic-like scent. The stem is triangular in shape and the leaves are similar to those of the lily of the valley. Unlike the related crow garlic and field garlic, the flower-head contains no bulbils, only flowers. Colonies are frequently associated with bluebells especially in ancient woodland.
Ramsons leaves are edible; they can be used as salad, spice, 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. The bulbs and flowers are also very tasty.
Ramsons 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 ramsons comes from the mesolithic settlement of Barkaer (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 ramsons pollen in the settlement layer, interpreted by some as evidence for the use of ramsons as fodder.
Similarity to poisonous plants
Ramsons leaves are easily mistaken for lily of the valley, sometimes also those of Colchicum autumnale and Arum maculatum. All three are poisonous and possibly deadly. A good means of positively identifying ramsons is grinding the leaves between one's fingers, which should produce a garlic-like smell. When the leaves of ramsons and Arum maculatum first sprout they look similar, however 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 ramsons leaves have individual green-coloured stems.