Bear’s garlic (Allium ursinum): seasonal food and medicinal plant

Bear’s garlic (Allium ursinum), also known in English as wild garlic or ramsons, is a wild edible herb that is very common in many European (except mediterranean and high altitude regions) and Asian countries. In fact, I just got to know about it when I moved to Switzerland, where you can see entire forests full of this herb in the beginning of the spring.

It is believed that its name is related to tales, according to which bears after awakening from winter hibernation would consume this plant to remove toxins from the body and regain strength [1].

Bear’s garlic is hypothesized to have been one of the plants that contributed to the hunter-gatherer diet, and it has been used since then [1]. Many cultures have been using it for its detoxifying effects [1].

I love this herb because of several reasons:

–  when it appears it is generally a sign that the spring is coming 😀

– it is one of the first herbs/vegetables sprouting in the year

– it tastes amazing! (if you like the garlic taste, of course 🙂 )

– it is super healthy, as you will see below.

I love going for walks in the Swiss forests and many times, especially in spring and summer, I profit to collect herbs that I know (100% sure) that are edible. The bear’s garlic is one of them. More precisely, the first of the year!

The whole plant is edible, meaning the root (bulb), the leaves and the flowers (but if you eat the root…no more bear’s garlic next year from that plant :p). I usually use the leaves before flowering time. When the flowers show up, I use these rather than the leaves. This is because the leaves contain the most health promoting compounds before flowering [1].

I use it in my kitchen to do pestos, in salads, soups, etc. I love it everywhere basically.

Now, you should be careful when you collect this herb. There are some similar plants which are poisonous, and whose leaves are similar to bear’s garlic, namely the Lily-of-the-valley, so you need to know how to distinguish them. A very easy way is to smell them: the bear’s garlic, as the name indicates, has a strong aroma (and taste) like garlic. Also, the best time to collect the bear’s garlic is in late February, March and until early April, depending on the temperature. When it gets warmer, the bear’s garlic starts to flower. The Lily-of-the-valley appears mostly in May. So, mistakes often occur when people look for bear’s garlic too late.

Bear’s garlic regenerates mainly by seeds, which are black and are shed naturally in June and July, although it depends on the weather conditions.

Health benefits

Beyond tasting great, bear’s garlic is very healthy as it has many antioxidants (e.g. phenolic compounds), vitamins (folate, for example) and phytonutrients (such as chlorophyll and carotenoids, besides the mentioned phenolic compounds) [1-3]. Interestingly, they contain not only antioxidants, but also they seem to be related to a high activity of antioxidant enzymes [4]. Its distinct garlic-like scent is due to the presence of sulfur-containing compounds [5] (super healthy!), some of which are also present in other Allium plants, like common garlic.

Bear’s garlic has been used as a medicinal plant in traditional medicine throughout human history. And now science is also proving its amazing health benefits, namely:

– antimicrobial (antibacterial and antifungal) and anti-parasitic activity [6-9]

– antioxidant activity, meaning free radical scavenging activity [4, 8-10]

– anti-atherogenic and antiplatelet (anticoagulant) activity [11-13]

– cardioprotective effects (meaning it protects our heart) [1, 11, 14, 15]

– reduces elevated blood pressure (hypertension) [14, 16]

– useful in the treatment of gastrointestinal (digestive) disturbances [8]

– detoxification activity [1]

Besides all these scientifically-proven medicinal uses of bear’s garlic, due to its potent antimicrobial activity, it has also been used in European traditional medicine as a remedy in respiratory problems, such as common cold with fever or bronchitis. It has also effectively been used externally to support wound healing, in chronic skin disorders, and in acne [1].

Special caution

Although bear’s garlic is generally recognized as safe, there are some situations where you need to be cautious. If you have or are prone to hemolytic anemia you may want to consume bear’s garlic (or garlic in general) with caution [1]. Also, if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you should be careful with the amount you consume. Bear’s garlic has a potent detoxification activity and you don’t want to detoxify (more than normal) while you are pregnant (but several months before!). So, in this case, consume it in low amounts and avoid pestos which are made with high amounts of this herb. If you are taking anticoagulant medication, you should also be careful as bear’s garlic has also by itself anticoagulant activity.

Did you know this wild plant? Do you also use it in your kitchen? How? Let us know in the comments below!

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  1.        Sobolewska, D., I. Podolak, and J. Makowska-Was, Allium ursinum: botanical, phytochemical and pharmacological overview. Phytochem Rev, 2015. 14(1): p. 81-97.
  2.        Oszmianski, J., J. Kolniak-Ostek, and A. Wojdylo, Characterization and content of flavonol derivatives of Allium ursinum L. plant. J Agric Food Chem, 2013. 61(1): p. 176-84.
  3.        Stajner, D., et al., Comparative study of antioxidant properties of wild growing and cultivated Allium species. Phytother Res, 2008. 22(1): p. 113-7.
  4.        Stajner, D., et al., Antioxidant and scavenger activities of Allium ursinum. Fitoterapia, 2008. 79(4): p. 303-5.
  5.        Gitin, L., et al., Sulfur compounds identification and quantification from Allium spp. fresh leaves. J Food Drug Anal, 2014. 22(4): p. 425-430.
  6.        Ivanova, A., et al., Chemical composition and antimicrobial activity of wild garlic Allium ursinum of Bulgarian origin. Nat Prod Commun, 2009. 4(8): p. 1059-62.
  7.        Krstin, S., et al., Tulbaghia violacea and Allium ursinum Extracts Exhibit Anti-Parasitic and Antimicrobial Activities. Molecules, 2018. 23(2).
  8.        Pavlovic, D.R., et al., Influence of different wild-garlic (Allium ursinum) extracts on the gastrointestinal system: spasmolytic, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. J Pharm Pharmacol, 2017. 69(9): p. 1208-1218.
  9.        Mihaylova, D.S., et al., Study on the antioxidant and antimicrobial activities of Allium ursinum L. pressurised-liquid extract. Nat Prod Res, 2014. 28(22): p. 2000-5.
  10.      Stajner, D., et al., Exploring Allium species as a source of potential medicinal agents. Phytother Res, 2006. 20(7): p. 581-4.
  11.      Bombicz, M., et al., Anti-Atherogenic Properties of Allium ursinum Liophylisate: Impact on Lipoprotein Homeostasis and Cardiac Biomarkers in Hypercholesterolemic Rabbits. Int J Mol Sci, 2016. 17(8).
  12.      Hiyasat, B., et al., Antiplatelet activity of Allium ursinum and Allium sativum. Pharmacology, 2009. 83(4): p. 197-204.
  13.      Sabha, D., et al., Allium ursinum L.: bioassay-guided isolation and identification of a galactolipid and a phytosterol exerting antiaggregatory effects. Pharmacology, 2012. 89(5-6): p. 260-9.
  14.      Bombicz, M., et al., A Novel Therapeutic Approach in the Treatment of Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension: Allium ursinum Liophylisate Alleviates Symptoms Comparably to Sildenafil. Int J Mol Sci, 2017. 18(7).
  15.      Rietz, B., et al., Cardioprotective actions of wild garlic (allium ursinum) in ischemia and reperfusion. Mol Cell Biochem, 1993. 119(1-2): p. 143-50.
  16.      Preuss, H.G., et al., Wild garlic has a greater effect than regular garlic on blood pressure and blood chemistries of rats. Int Urol Nephrol, 2001. 32(4): p. 525-30.


2 Responses to “Bear’s garlic (Allium ursinum): seasonal food and medicinal plant

  • Hola
    I have no idea about this plant
    Is it possible to cultivate this plant at home?
    By home, I mean in flower bed?

    • Ana Coito, PhD
      6 years ago

      Hi Rudy,
      Bear’s garlic (or wild garlic) is found in spring in the forests in Europe except mediterranean regions. If you get the seeds, you surely can plant it at home! I have actually done that as well 🙂

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