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How to Identify Edible Wild Onions — Field Garlic, Ramps, Wild Leeks and More

How to Identify Edible Wild Onions — Field Garlic, Ramps, Wild Leeks and More
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What are wild onions?

Wild onions are edible cousins of our domesticated onions and garlic.

Are wild onions edible?

Yes! All parts are edible.

Key characteristics

  • unmistakable onion aroma
  • grows from aromatic underground bulb
  • small 6-petaled flowers which may hang down or be borne in a globular cluster on top of a stem
  • A. vineale has smooth, thin, hollow leaves like chives; A. triquetrum has a distinctly triangular stem (hence the common name “three-cornered leek”); A. tricoccum, by contrast, always has one or two wide, flat, oval-shaped leaves terminating in (pink-red) stems

A wild patch of three-cornered leeks in bloom in the hills of Oakland, California.

Etymology and Taxonomy

Common Names

Wild onions, wild garlic, field garlic, crow garlic, scallions, onionweed, ramps, wild leeks, three-cornered leeks.

Taxonomical Family

  • Amarylidaceae (Amaryllis) family
    • Allioideae (Allium) subfamily
      • Allieae (Allium) tribe

Source: Wikipedia

About the Allium genus

Allium is the only genus in the Allieae tribe within the Allioideae subfamily, which should tell you that they are kind of in a league of their own. There are over 500 species in this genus.

North American onion species

North American species include the native A. canadense (wild onion), A. oleraceum (wild garlic), and A. tricoccum (ramps/wild leeks), as well as the introduced A. vineale (field garlic) and A. triquetrum (three-cornered leek).

We are going to focus our attention on the latter three here, as ramps have gained popularity in recent years and are now threatened with extirpation (local extinction) across much of their range; while the weedy field garlic runs rampant throughout the eastern half of the continent and the analogous three-cornered leek dominates large swaths of the west coast.

Many, many other species are found locally and regionally throughout the continent: the California Native Plant Society lists 70 species found in that state alone! Thankfully, they are share a few unmistakable common traits which will be exemplified in the species covered here.

Where to find edible wild onions

Wild Allium spp. are found all throughout North America. Most of us are much more likely to encounter one of the weedier introduced species than any of the natives.

A. vineale (field garlic, crow garlic), is among the most widespread, found essentially everywhere except the Rocky Mountains and the far north of Canada. California and Oregon also host the introduced A. triquetrum (three-cornered leek).

These two species have a tendency to take over marginal pasture space that may have been overgrazed or become too compacted to grow much else. This also makes field garlic especially common in lawns and gardens—if you’ve ever caught a whiff of onions while mowing your lawn in the spring or summer, you probably just ran over a tuft of field garlic poking through the grass.

North America’s A. canadense (wild onion, meadow garlic) can be found all throughout the eastern half of the continent. A. oleraceum (wild garlic), though also native, is quite uncommon and restricted to a small range encompassing parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ontario, Virginia, and Kentucky.

A. tricoccum (wild leeks, ramps) is found throughout eastern North America from Georgia up into southern Canada. It generally prefers higher elevations and north-facing slopes, and is often found close to streams or creeks. As an understory species it prefers mostly shade with dappled sunlight.

Various other local and regional species can be found occupying many different niches and climates around the continent.

Wild ramps pop up in clusters like this all across the Eastern U.S. in late winter and early spring.

When to gather wild onions

Wild alliums are a harbinger of spring wherever they’re found, though in colder climates they may emerge from their underground bulbs long before the worst of winter is over.

Field garlic will be one of the first green things to appear on the landscape each year, as early as January in milder climates. Three-cornered leeks will pop up during the rainy season on the west coast and become conspicuous by April when its flowers are in bloom. Anytime you find wild allium greens or flowers, they can be harvested and eaten raw or cooked.

As a general rule, bulbs are best gathered after the aboveground portion of the plant has begun dying back in summer or fall. But don’t be afraid to test your local species at different moments in the season to see when you like them best.

Why forage for wild onions?

The Allium genus has been prized for its culinary and medicinal uses for as far back as recorded history goes—garlic was among the first wave of plants that humans intentionally domesticated many thousands of years ago, so it’s safe to bet that we’ve been cultivating a deep relationship with this genus for much, much longer than that.

Beyond being culinary delights, some of the better known species here in North America present us with very important case studies in ecology as foragers. Not all onions are created equal!

A. tricoccum, in particular, is an important species to get to know as a North American forager, even if it is not present in your region.

The wild leek is one of few wild edible plants with a longstanding, ongoing presence in the market, and because of its status as a gourmet food, it commands an exceptionally high price among chefs in the know.

This has unfortunately resulted in the exploitation and overharvesting of a rather delicate woodland perennial that is simultaneously dwindling due to the disappearance of its habitat and the encroachment of invasive species.

All of this is further complicated by the fact that ramps are especially slow to go to seed for such a minute spring ephemeral: the average plant will not produce seeds until it’s at least seven years old, and even then it may not do so every year. To make matters worse, the seeds sometimes take several years to germinate.

Folks who’ve gotten to know populations of ramps over the years tell similar cautionary tales about having to travel further and further up the mountainside to find them; how long before none remain?

How to harvest and prepare wild onions

In the case of invasive species like field garlic and three-cornered leek: harvest to your heart’s content!

Gather the greens by chopping off a clump and dicing them up to use like you would green onions or chives.

When cooking with them, in most cases you’ll probably want to add them at the very last moment in order to preserve their unique flavors and aromas.

If you’re feeling creative or you have extra to spare, there are a number of unique uses to consider: you could add them to pickles or ferments; or create infused butter or oil for later use.

Bulbs can be used to impart a sweet allium flavor to dishes like eggs or beans, but use in smaller quantities than you would store-bought onions or garlic as the wild counterparts can be pretty potent.

Continue reading below for detailed information on ethical and sustainable harvesting of ramps.

These ramps were ethically and sustainably harvested from an abundant patch by knowledgeable foragers. Always gather conservatively.

How to sustainably work with wild onions

A. vineale and A. triquetrum are introduced species in North America that are essentially impossible to eradicate: their water-resistant leaves are more or less impermeable to chemical herbicides, and controlling by hand would be an absurd exercise in futility. So, no need to participate in their life cycles, except to eat as much as you can stand while they’re in season.

A. tricoccum, on the other hand, requires extra special care and consideration. If you choose to harvest from a patch of wild leeks, it is your personal responsibility to thoroughly and honestly assess the situation at hand to determine the impact that you will have on that population’s ability to persist indefinitely.

Unlike field garlic and three-cornered leek, ramps are very sensitive to human impact.

You should err on the side of having no impact if you’re not confident in your ability to judge the relative health and abundance of the population; and if you are in your first year as a forager or you are new to wild leeks, this is the way to go.

That said, there are more and less sustainable ways to harvest.

The most sustainable option is to harvest just one of the plant’s characteristic two leaves, leaving behind the second leaf and the bulb.

Traditionally, some indigenous peoples of North America harvest both leaves just below soil level, leaving the bulb behind to recover. You might cut a little further down the stem, into the bulb itself, but leaving the bottom third intact.

All of this can exhaust individual plants over time to the point that they will eventually wither and die over the years, so this route requires caution, as well as knowing the patch well enough to remember which plants need time to rest from year to year. Any harvesting in this way can prevent a given individual from setting seed this year, if it was going to.

If you’re confident you’ve found an abundant, thriving population, you might consider digging up whole plants, bulb and all. This is the least sustainable option. In this case, exercise severe restraint and only harvest what you intend to use fresh. Leave behind the vast majority of the population, and be careful not to injure neighboring plants when digging.

All of this care and caution that’s required in the case of the wild leek begs the question: “why bother messing with them at all?”

Great question! Indeed, I would argue that on a continent replete with invasive field garlic and three-cornered leeks, we don’t really have any good reasons to go disturbing remnant patches of ramps.

As foragers, it’s easy for us to get locked into a collector’s mindset: “Gotta catch ‘em all!” And in our quest for novelty, we can end up causing irrevocable harm to a native plant population when its analogous introduced cousins would serve the exact same purpose in our kitchens.

So all of this is to say: if you have a choice between ubiquitous field garlic and endangered wild leeks—eat the weeds, every time.

If you happen to stumble upon a healthy population of wild leeks bearing seeds, do the plants a favor and scatter the seeds in another similar spot near the patch. They do not need to be sown—simply broadcast them across the ground. You might finish by lightly covering them with some nearby leaves. Don’t expect to see much activity for a couple years, if ever. Nobody said it was easy.

Wild onion lookalikes

There are many unrelated plants that may bear a superficial resemblance to wild alliums—perhaps too many to mention. Fortunately, the Allium genus is one of those all-too-rare cases where we can safely apply a forager’s maxim (to borrow from Green Deane:

If a plant looks like an onion and smells like an onion, you can eat it. If a plant looks like a garlic and smells like a garlic, you can eat it.

If it looks like an allium but lacks that characteristic odor, chances are good that it’s a non-edible or potentially toxic lookalike.

If it smells like onions/garlic but looks absolutely nothing like an allium, you might have stumbled upon our friend garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata.

Garlic mustard clearly bears no resemblance to onions, but the aroma could lead to some confusion.

Click here to learn more about garlic mustard.

Foraging North America

Did you find this article helpful?

This is an excerpt from Foraging North America: The Botany, Taxonomy and Ecology of Edible Wild Plants.

Foraging North America is a 12-week crash course designed to arm you with a functional working knowledge of botany and taxonomy that you can take with you out onto the land to fast-track the ID process and boost your confidence when gathering wild foods for the first (or five-hundredth!) time.

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Food is everywhere—you just need to know what to look for!

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