University of Maryland Extension

One Man’s Weed is another Woman’s Dinner

Author: 
Norman Cohen
Allium Canadensis

Inspiration struck on a mid-April workday as I attempted my favorite weeding chore, removing the wild onion. As I struggled with the weed whose bulb seems to grow two feet below ground, I thought that the time has come to learn more about this pernicious, ubiquitous, invasive plant.

Allium canadense, the native wild onion, is indigenous to two-thirds of the United States and the Eastern provinces of Canada. Common names are Canada onion, wild garlic, meadow garlic, and Canadian garlic. The name, wild garlic, is also shared with Allium vineale, a native to Europe, North Africa and western Asia. This species was introduced into North America and is now considered invasive.

A canadense, a close relative to the cultivated onion A. cepa, has an edible bulb covered with a dense skin of brown fibers and tastes like an onion. The plant also has strong, onion-like odor. A. vineale also known as crow’s garlic is similar, but it has a stronger garlic taste than the cultivated garlic A.sativum which is sterile. A. canadense is topped by a dome-like cluster of star-shaped, pink or white flowers. These flowers may be partially or entirely replaced by bulblets. The flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs) and are pollinated by American bees (not honey- bees) and other insects as is A.vineale. It typically flowers in the spring and early summer, from May to June.

The flowers and/or aerial bulblets of A. vineale are produced in dense spherical clusters (3/4 to 2 inches wide) at the tops of stems. Clusters are initially covered in a papery bract (spathe). Flowers are purplish to greenish (sometimes white), with 6 small petals, and are borne on short stalks above the bulblets. Aerial bulblets are commonly produced in place of some or all the flowers, and are oval or teardrop-shaped and very small (1/8 to 1/5 inch long). They are smooth, shiny, and often develop miniature, tail-like green leaves.  If cattle graze wild garlic, a garlic-like flavor and odor will affect dairy and beef products. Additionally, crops of small grains may become tainted with a garlic-like odor and/or flavor if bulblets are present at harvest.

Phil Briscoe, Linda Myers and I were commiserating on the difficulty of weeding wild onions. Linda and Phil were both of the opinion some culinary delight could be created from this poor excuse for an onion.

To prove this point, Linda reports, “I took home a big bunch of the ones we grubbed out of the GIEI beds, rinsed them off at the outside tap, and sealed them into a Ziploc bag in the fridge (they are somewhat odoriferous). That night, after thoroughly cleaning them, cutting off the roots and removing the outer layer, I chopped them up and sautéed them in olive oil with some garlic, mushrooms and a little hot pepper, then stirred them into a soft polenta, added some parmesan cheese, and voila, a tasty dish. I wouldn't recommend eating them raw, as they have quite a bite, but cooking mellowed them.  They were not as sweet as ramps, but had a nice earthy, oniony taste. There is something magical about olive oil that makes everything taste good!”

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