Rachel Lambert: forager, author, guide
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Comparing white bells and three cornered leek

Can you tell which one of these plants is edible and which is poisonous?

In this blog I explore potential mistakes with white bell flowers and flowering three-cornered leek, touch on why it is important to get it right and a true story to remind you to check what you're picking!

are white bells edible? Comparing plants
The plant on the left is a white 'bluebell' and on the right three-cornered leek.

Spring Foraging

Spring is one of my favourite times of year. I can't quite decide whether it is the colour, the spring nutrition, the smell of fresh nettles (yes, they have a spring scent), or the increasing light and warmth. In truth, I'm sure it's all of these, plus it's the time I was born.

Spring is a rich time to forage, in gardening and farming it known as the 'hungry gap' before cultivated plants are ready to harvest. Yet many wild edibles are abundant and ripe at this time.

Here in West Cornwall three-cornered leek is prolific in many areas, often growing amongst bluebells as well as other spring plants and flowers.

Cornish bluebell wood in spring

True Story

I once met someone (who shall remain nameless) who'd foraged with friends in a large patch of three-cornered leek. They had a great time, felt proud of their bounty and created a delicious meal which they shared together.

Straight after the meal one of them was sick, then another. Within an hour 3 of them had thrown up. The other 3 took up to half a day to react, with one being sick right at the end of the day.

I was glad to hear this. It may sound funny but if someone has ingested a poison you want the body to reject it and get it out. And their healthy, functioning bodies did just that.*

Unknowingly they had picked bluebell leaves within their bounty. Bluebells are toxic to humans, dogs and cattle, they can cause serious stomach upset and if eaten in large doses could be fatal.

Top Tip: Always check through the plants that you have foraged before eating or preparing them.

Comparing white bells and three cornered leek

How to correctly identify three-cornered leek

I've written a whole blog on three cornered leek, though lets go over a few pointers here about identifying it.

  1. It smells of garlic/onion
  2. The flower stems are triangular and the leaf stems also have 3, more subtle, corners
  3. In comparison, bluebell leaves are folded, but do not have 3 corners
  4. Bluebells sometimes appear with white flowers, the flowers also appear lower on the stem
  5. Three-cornered leek flowers all come out from one point at the top of the stem
  6. Three-cornered leek flowers have a narrow green stripe down the centre of each petal

Why do bluebells go white?

It is an interesting phenomena that bluebells sometimes turn white and this can create an additional confusion. It is likely that this is a genetic change though it could also be soil depletion.

Remember to always check what you've picked. If you're not sure, leave it and enjoy the eye-candy of bluebell season!

*Always seek medical advice if you have eaten a poisonous plant. I am not a medical herbalist nor a medical professional and cannot provide medical advice.

Simple and delicious (wild) onion-flavoured water biscuits. Serve with cheese or just plain on their own. I made these for a group of school children who loved them (phew!). They ate them plain and with wild herb butter on.

This recipe uses three-cornered leek (Allium triquetrium), but you could use any of the wild garlic family. Just follow these simple tips to make sure the biscuits work.

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I don't mind what you call it. In Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly this plant is often called wild garlic. Those who call it this know what they mean. They know they're talking about the onion grass, the long, thin one that smells of garlic. In Australia and New Zealand it's known as onion weed.

This blog is all about three-cornered leek, or whatever name you call it by. I describe its unique qualities, where it grows and how it compares to using wild garlic/ramsons (Allium ursinum) in recipes.

Three cornered leek is also in my Wild Food Foraging book and I regularly teach it on my foraging courses, especially in spring.

Three-cornered leek (Allium triquetrium) goes by many local names, but only one latin one. All the local names refer to its garlicky smell; onion grass, onion weed, wild garlic, three-cornered garlic, three-cornered onion or three-cornered leek. A member of the allium family it originates from the Mediterranean, Madeira, Canary Islands and North Africa.

It was originally introduced to the UK in the 18th century and the rest is history.

Why is it called three-cornered?

It has three-corners! A subtle triangle shape is visible when you horizontally cut a leaf and a clear triangular shape is visible on a cut flower stem. When not cut, a ridge is noticeable on the leaves, acting almost like a spine which makes the leaves more buoyant and upright.

Which parts can you eat?

You can eat all of this plant - the roots, flowers, flower buds, leaves and flower stems. Here in Cornwall I start eating it through winter when the leaves are greener and before the flowers start to show.

The Roots

Showing the roots of three-cornered leek

The roots of three-cornered leek are similar to spring onions though a little more watery and sweeter. Like leeks, they take a bit of time to clean up and remove the mud.

Remember that in the UK you need permission to dig up roots. However, I've never been refused permission to dig up these roots. People are often very grateful for me to take this plant away as it spreads really easily.

The Leaves

The leaves are the mildest part of the plant. Sometimes I cook them by sweating them down in a little oil or butter. They have a mild onion flavour this way.

The Flowers and Buds

The flowers and flower buds have a strong garlicky crunch. I love sprinkling them over salads and using them as an edible garnish. The buds are lovely pickled too. The flowers are white with a distinct green stripe on them.

Flower Stems

These are my favourite parts as they are the sweetest. I love chewing on them as I walk, they are one of my favourite spring walk snacks!

Wild Garlic

Three Cornered Leek v Wild Garlic

Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) is stronger, earthier garlic flavour. It has broad leaves and tends to grow in woodlands and near streams. It lends itself well to baking and cooking.

Three cornered leek (Allium triquetrium) is milder and sweeter in flavour. It likes to grow in warmer climates and thrives well in open spaces and hedgerows in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. It lends itself well to using raw, like spring onion.

Allium triquetrium and Rumex acetosa

Spring is full of wild ingredients that are perfect for adding into, oh so many different recipes. Farinata - a savoury bake made out of chickpea flour - is a great carrier for these spring wilds. Like an omelette, though egg-less, baked in the oven and extremely tasty, it happens to be vegan and gluten-free too and is easy to add shoots, leaves and flowers, and even seaweed to. Here's my spring version, feel free to add different wilds. I've made a version with hogweed shoots and rosemary too, which was equally delicious.

Wild Spring Farinata Recipe

Makes 7-8 farinatas

Ingredients

  • 300 g chickpea flour
  • 1 litre water
  • 1 heaped tsp sea salt
  • 1 tsp ground seaweed (I used bladderwrack/popweed, Fucus vesiculosus)
  • Light olive oil or vegetable oil
  • Large handful three-cornered leek/wild garlic, chopped
  • Small handful common sorrel leaves and stems, chopped

In a large bowl mix the chickpea flour, water, salt and seaweed. Whisk well to combine. Leave to sit for at least an hour, ideally overnight, it will also keep well in the fridge for up to 4 days. Preheat the oven to 220°C. Using a heavy-bottom, oven proof pan, generously add oil and heat over a medium to high heat, till almost smoking.

Spoon in a couple of ladles full of the mixture, coating the pan with a thin layer, about 0.5-1 cm thick. Sprinkle over some three-cornered leek, allow to cook for 5 mintues, sprinkle on the sorrel and place in the oven for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and slice off with a fish slice or similar. Re-oil the pan and repeat with another couple of ladles full and follow until you have enough to eat! Best eaten fresh. Like I mentioned, the mixture keeps well in the fridge well for a few days in the fridge, so you don't have to finish it all in one go.

with common sorrel and three-cornered leek

Works well as a snack (shared it on the beach with a foraging group), I also shared it with a friend, served with a potato salad and well-dressed green salad for supper. I run monthly foraging courses which always include homemade, wild tasters.  I'm also available for private forays, looking at the weeds on your land, in your area or just for a holiday delight.

allium triquetrium

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Here in Cornwall, three-cornered leek (allium triquetrium) is often called wild garlic. I don't have a problem with that. I enjoy local names, to me, I associate it with locals taking ownership of the plants, land and so-called weeds surrounding them and I see that as a good thing.

(Allium triquetrium has long, thin leaves and stems which are triangular shaped and drooping white flowers)

As I live in Cornwall, I use 'our' wild garlic a lot, though you could use the true wild garlic, ransoms (allium ursinum) instead. Actually, I suggest you use the wild version that is easily available to you, and don't worry about the rest.

For the last two years, I've had a quick chat with the Cornwall based chef, author and multi-restaurant owner Nathan Outlaw when he's come down to Penzance to do a book signing of his latest book at the brilliant The Edge of the World Bookshop. An immensly energetic though laid-back, hard-working, kind and talented chef he's always a pleasure to talk wild food with.

I now have Nathan's Everyday Seafood Book in my, very small, cookbook shelf and ocassionally flick through it for inspiration and recipe ideas. It's always the Sea Lettuce (Ulva lactuca) oil that stands out to me, partly because of its brilliant colour, of course because it uses wild food, and also because it is very simple and easy to make.

(Sea lettuce seaweed, ulva lactuca, looks as you would imagine - like lettuce)

I decided to have a go at my own version - because I'm me, and I like to tweak things, and because, well you can find Nathan Outlaw's seaweed oil recipe in his book (see link above), so I thought I'd offer something else here.

Flavouring an oil is a great way to capture a wild aroma long after its season has passed. This oil will continue to mature once in your store cupboard and I suggest using it within 3 months.

Both three-cornered leek (aka wild garlic) and sea lettuce seaweed are rich in nutrients and health giving properties, including vitamin C, B vitamins, iron and immune boosting goodness. Spring is the best time for wild garlic and sea lettuce is good in spring or summer, or used dried. Below I use rapeseed oil - I had it in my cupboard, and hey, it's local too!

Wild Garlic and Seaweed Oil Recipe

Drizzle over soup, bread, cheese on toast, use it to cook spanish omelettes or to fry eggs in. Basically you can use it raw or in cooking.

Ingredients

400ml cold-pressed rapeseed oil

1 handful sea lettuce, fresh or rehydrated from dried

Small handful of three-cornered leek

Drop the sea lettuce and three-cornered leek into boiling water for 30 seconds, remove and plunge immediately into ice cold water. Squeeze out all the excess liquid and blend with the oil. Store in a dark cupboard and use within 3 months.

I'm often asked what my favourite time to forage is, well spring is fantastic, though honestly, winter is becoming an increasingly wonderful time to forage. The quiet, the abundance of plants and the unexpected joys of finding food (not in the supermarket) this time of year.

 

 

On January 2nd myself and a small group of friends went foraging, our task; to simply enjoy the outdoors and gather a few ingredients for supper, which we'd then share together, and that's exactly what we did. A big thank you to Sara Pozzoli for joining us and filming us. Here's the menu;

 

Winter Foraging Menu

Spelt Bread with Alexander Seeds

Salsa Verde with Rock Samphire, Pepper Dulse and Three-Cornered Leek

~

Alexanders, Sea Spinach, Gorse Flower and Coconut Curry

Yoghurt Dressing with Three-Cornered Leek, Black Mustard and Wild Chervil

~

Chocolate and Haw Berry Jam Cheesecake

 

 

Spring is exciting - a combination of warmth and light gets plants, animals and human-animals going. Sometimes, for me, too going. The term mad march hare feels too close to home for me, as I prance around the hedgerows picking wild greens as if there is no tomorrow, or as if spring won't last forever, which of course it won't. Lets face it, we've often being waiting a while for it to come too.

Many wild greens respond well to being plucked, for example when the tops of nettles are snipped off this stimulates more growth and leaf tops to grow. So below I've chosen 5 common wild foods that arrive every year, a plenty and are happy to be plucked, appreciated and eaten.

Here are my top 5 pick-ables (non-technical term :)) for this spring, I have loads of nuggets of information and recipes to share on each of them, though for now I'll keep it brief.

My Top Five Spring Wild Foods

1. Stinging Nettles Urtica dioica

Never under-estimate a common plant, believe me, nettles are a valuable food and we are lucky to have them. Their nutrition and versatility makes them easy to use (just avoid being stung) and they are (in my humble opinion and according to nutritional facts) better for you than spinach or cabbage.

2. Wild Garlic Allium family

The wild onion, garlic and leek family is vast and too large to go into here, though their commonalities include a wonderful garlic taste (and smell), anti bacterial properties and support for the heart. The whole of the plant can be used and it can be used raw or cooked - raw is stronger. It is one of the key edibles of spring.

3. Cleavers/Goosegrass Galium aparine

Cleavers spread. They grow up to 1 metre long and can be collected without a bag (let them stick to you). The leaves are a wonderful spring cleanser and support the urinary and lymphatic system, though best cooked to avoid the not so pleasant hairy texture when raw and use in small amounts. I like to just pluck the tops and sweat them with nettles in butter or oil.

4. Alexanders Smyrnium olusatrum

Writing this from the south coast of Cornwall, Alexanders are definitely on my list. Abundant and often considered an invasive (land managers around Bristol have also practically pleaded with me to pick and eat them too). Nutritious and versatile, if you just know how to use them and pick them early on in spring.

5. Common Sorrel Rumex acetosa

Sorrel sap is tart and lemony and at its best in spring, and once you get your eye in, you'll start to see it everywhere. Delicious added to so many savoury and sweet dishes, though don't eat too much as it contains oxalic acid which isn't good to eat in large amounts. A little is fine though.

So there you have it, my five favourite wild greens, and yes greens are best in spring. Next spring, maybe I'll share a different five, as there's always more to share.

Spring has been creeping in, in some places slowly, and other places fast. The telling signs of birds carrying nesting material, lighter mornings and the fresh green plant life in the landscape all help us soften and brighten as Winter is left behind.

If you’re reading this in the UK and wondering what I’m taking about - perhaps where you live Winter still feels like it has it’s grip. Well, I’m writing from West Cornwall, and yes, our milder climate tends to be ahead of many areas, even just a little further north of here.

Two common, abundant and often cursed (both these plants are considered invasive weeds) edible Spring plants in Cornwall are Alexanders Smyrnium olusatrum and Three Cornered Leek Allium Triquetrium. Picking, eating and even digging these plants up*, are normally received with appreciation. On that note, and in the spirit of Spring abundance, I’ve created and offer this recipe to you.

A bunch of young alexander leaves and stems

Alexanders and Three Cornered Leek Frittata

Makes 8 slices (4 main courses or 8 snacks)

Ingredients 

  • 400 g Cornish Potatoes
  • 2 tablespoons Olive Oil
  • 75 g Alexanders (leaves and young stems, chopped)
  • 75 g Three Cornered Leek (leaves, stems and roots, if available, all finely chopped)
  • 5 organic or free-range local eggs, beaten
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Peel, dice and cook the potatoes in plenty of water, for about 10 minutes or until just cooked. You’ll be able to place a knife through the potatoes easily, though not so soft that the potatoes fall apart. Strain off the liquid and return to the pan on a low heat for a minute, just to evaporate off any remaining liquid.

Heat the oil in a saucepan  approximately 25 cm across in size, over a medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the potatoes, alexanders and salt and pepper and fry for about 8 minutes, turning to fry on each side, when needed. Some of the potatoes will be golden brown after this time.

 

 

 

 

 

Briefly mix in the eggs and three-cornered leek, ensuring that the mixture is evenly spread across the pan. Cook for a further 8 minutes, or until the eggs are almost set.

 

 

 

 

 

Place under the grill for 2-3 minutes to set and and turn the frittata golden. You can carefully slice and serve while warm, or when cold. Serve as part of a main meal with a luscious salad, or eat as a snack.

*Permission is needed from the land owner to dig up plants, otherwise you are breaking the law.

It's deep December and I'm standing outside. Actually, there's 8 of us standing outside and waiting for the one that's gone astray. Once we're all congregated, we begin. There's something innately quiet about walking in Winter, as if all around us is sleeping, and in some ways it is. We walk together through this slumbering landscape, initially unaware of the life around us.

What can you forage in winter?

From as early as November, my forager eyes start to spot edible greens that are normally associated with spring. Alexanders, Nettle Tops, Three-Cornered Leek (locally known as Wild Garlic), Wild Cress and Mustard, Pennywort, Wild chervil, Gorse flowers and even Daisy leaves and flowers for salads and cooked dishes.

Garlic Mustard
Garlic Mustard, Hedge Mustard

Although the nutrition of plants can be significantly increased in Spring, goodness can still be enjoyed from these plants through the winter months. In Cornwall, where we may lack in terms of nuts and berries (there are only a few forests & woodlands here) it is more than made up with coastal plants and, due to the mild climate, a great choice of edible greens right through winter. While other areas of the UK are below frost or snow, there are milder areas of Cornwall that offer valuable forage-ables.

Urtica dioica
Bellis perennis

The benefits of foraging in winter

What's more, foraging feeds the soul not just in winter, though every time of year. According to the  National Wildlife Federation's article; It's all in the dirt, the reason for this includes good bacteria in the soil that releases seretonin - the feel good hormone. This makes me feel even better about my muddy boots and dirty fingernails too!

In some ways, there's more to see in winter, without the distraction of hoards of people, beautiful, bright flowers, and sunsets to melt into. Instead, the offerings maybe more subtle - beige stems, low growing greens, and flowerless stems, though don't be tempted to dismiss these edible due to their humble winter personas.

Common Hogweed seed (Heracleum Spondylium), for example (below), may look like a dead seed-head, though within it lies delicious aromatic flavours for curries and many sweet dishes.

Heracleum sphondylium
Hogweed Seed and Almond Thins

If you need it, use foraging as an excuse to get you outside, for that dose of daylight, fresh air and nature fix. Watching wintering birds, or rolling white horses of the waves, and returning with a handful of winter greens, it's hard for the soul not to be lifted, even if just a little. And if you're still not convinced and only yearning for the bright yellow sun of summer, then perhaps gorse is the only cure for you. Up on the moorlands of Cornwall, somewhere, you will always find the bright yellow flowers of gorse; an uplifting flower. According to Bach Flower Remedies gorse can offer you hope, when all hope is lost. I promise, summer will return.

Gorse flowers

Having watched spring slowly arrive over winter, in the last few weeks it has speeded up & fully arrived in all its glory. I love spring, perhaps because it's the season I was born, or maybe  because of those lovely bouncy baby lambs in the fields... Then there's the increase of day light & all the spring foraging to enjoy too. An abundance of smells, tastes, textures & goodness - all oozing with vitamins & minerals. Basically a multitude of reasons to have a spring in my step & that madness of energy that's associated with this time of year.

Teaching foraging is largely seasonal, mainly because people want to forage to certain times of year, rather than there being a lack of plants during the winter months. As my season starts of kick off, my days feel fuller - bookings, organising & planning. At the end of the day there's nothing fresher for me than to take a walk, get away from the computer & amble along, lazily picking as I go. It's relaxing, valuable time-out, all with a flavour of spring madness of the plants I have to choose from as I walk.

Ooooh, what catches my eye today? So much to choose from. Today I chose just a few spring greens for supper - nettles, cleavers, & tri-cornered leek for soup. Chickweed & yarrow for frittata. I could go on about the bounty to enjoy, though really I just want to sit & eat, then do it all again tomorrow! Wishing you wonderful spring foraging - this really is the time to go mad out there & forage to your hearts content.

Shopping down the supermarket aisle? Not for me, in spring all my greens come from the hedgerow.

An evening walk to collect herbs for dinner

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