Wild garlic is a plant for all the senses: it looks, smells and tastes fantastic. Since discovering this free culinary marvel, I’ve grown increasingly fond of it, giving it a whirl in everything from pesto to pasta and soup to stir fry. Having said that, I never quite get round to picking enough, a great shame since there’s almost no finer wild food ingredient. And don’t just take it from me, take it from a real connoisseur: there’s a species of hoverfly called Portevenia maculata which feeds exclusively on wild garlic. Its larvae develop over winter within the bulbs and roots whilst the grey-black adults are often found resting on a ramson leaf in May or June.
The prospect of finding one of these unassuming creatures (alongside the chance of scoring a free addition to our supper) is what prompted me to spend a portion of Wednesday afternoon loitering near a particularly spectacular ramson patch. On the north side of Whiteknights Park, a tall red-brick terrace backs onto long, rambling gardens, which in turn merge into scruffy woodland on the edge of the university campus. Here, beneath the trees, the ground is currently thickly carpeted with pungent wild garlic leaves, above which a galaxy of white, star-shaped flowers trembles in the breeze.
Suburban edgelands1 such as this are great places for so-called ‘weeds’2 like today’s subject. Here wild plants, Alliums or otherwise, can flourish free from interference by University grounds staff, over-eager gardeners and marauding council mowers. These secret worlds, where on a quiet sun-dappled afternoon time seems nearly to stand still, are at constant risk from the inexplicable urge to tidy, tidy, tidy. A great shame since they’re perfect exploration grounds for the inquisitive sort of child that society is supposed to be encouraging to go outdoors.
No young people were troubling Reading’s ramsons on Wednesday, though to be honest I was grateful since I generally prefer, selfishly, to have a place to myself. However, a host of industrious insects was out performing its own more urgent investigations, the numerous bees and hoverflies present no doubt attracted by the bounty of garlicky nectar on offer. No Portevenia – perhaps it has yet to emerge here this year, or maybe the species doesn’t grace inner Reading – but whatever the reason for its absence, I’ll be more than happy to go back to the garlic patch for another look. There are worse places to spend an hour.
1Edgelands (by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley) and 2Weeds (by Richard Mabey) are both highly recommended as books on perceptions of wildness. Mabey also wrote the classic foraging handbook, Food For Free.