We’re just starting to edge from winter to spring and there’s no better time to take a woodland walk. The longer, warming days are telling early bloomers it’s time to wake up. The woodland canopy is still relatively bare and won’t close until the end of spring when the trees’ leaves have grabbed any space available where direct sunlight can get to. Several species of plant are jumping in before this happens, making the most of the tentative sunlight filtering through the trees’ branches. One of these plants is wild garlic. It won’t quite be in flower just yet but you can still spot its long, glossy pointed leaves – although you’re actually more likely to smell it first! A garlicky, earthy and comforting scent filling the woodland air, sometimes strongly and sometimes more subtly.
Wild garlic nectar is a very welcomed early food source for hungry hoverflies, butterflies, bees and the longhorn beetle who have survived the winter’s food gap. They’re not the only ones who feed off of it though – people have foraged for wild garlic for centuries. It’s delicious in soups, salads and even pesto. As well as this, it is used in the herbal treatment of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and digestive problems and applying its juice to joints affected by arthritis has been known to ease symptoms. All parts of the plant can be consumed, including the flowers, but the bulb is the most active part. When wild garlic isn’t in flower it can be confused with lily-of-the-valley which is poisonous. To tell the difference, check how the leaves grow. Wild garlic leaves all grow from the base whereas lily-of-the-valley has two or three leaves growing from the stem (it’s advisable to further research this before any foraging).
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about wild garlic is that, along with several other plant species, it’s an indicator of ancient woodland. So if you see it, it’s possible that the area you’re stood in has been continuously covered by woodland since 1600 AD! Before this date, planting of woodlands was very uncommon, so woodlands present before this time are likely to have developed naturally.
Ancient woodland indicator species are usually unable to survive outside of woodland environments and they don’t tend to spread their seeds quickly or very far away. This means that it would be difficult for these plants to start growing in a newly planted woodland. Therefore, if they’re present it suggests that they’re in an area that’s been covered by woodland for a very long time.
Ancient woodlands are of extremely high value to wildlife. They’re relatively undisturbed by humans which has allowed very unique conditions and complex communities of plants, animals and microorganisms to develop. In fact, ancient woodlands provide habitat for more threatened species than any other land habitat in the UK, for example the dormouse. People would have lived and travelled through ancient woodlands for years so have a look for any signs of the past – any features running in unnaturally straight lines like banks or ditches. These may be old roads, deer park boundaries or parish boundaries.
We have lost many of our ancient woodlands to development, and over a thousand that remain are currently under threat. Because of each ancient woodland’s uniqueness, plus the fact they’ve literally taken centuries to develop, we cannot replace them – once they’re gone, they’re gone. So this spring if you notice some wild garlic on your walk, enjoy its smell, pretty white flowers and maybe its delicious taste. But also maybe take a moment to look around and really appreciate the area you’re in because if it is indeed ancient woodland, it’s one of the most wildlife-rich and precious pockets of nature in the UK.
To go on a fantastic early spring day out, find some wild garlic and experience being in a beautiful ancient woodland head to our Folly Farm or Prior’s Wood nature reserves. Plan your trip.