Harvesting Germany’s Wild Garlic

Germans and their food obsessions. We are getting deep into Spargel season, but I am still stuck on the last seasonal mania, Bärlauch. Alternatively known as Allium ursinum, ramsons, bear leek, or wild garlic – all of these names meant nothing to me before coming to Germany.

Wild Bärlauch Photo: Ian Porter

The fixation with Bärlauch isn’t quite as strong as the all-encompassing Spargelzeit, but it still sneaks its way onto every menu and farmer’s market. In the last few years, I’ve been treated to Bärlauch the traditional German way, harvested straight from the forest. I’ve never felt more German.

What is Bärlauch?

Bärlauch is actually a wild relative of chives and is native to Europe (as well as parts of Asia). A favorite of bears (hence the name) and wild boars, the German people are quite fond as well

This is one of the most popular wild herbs and it thrives in altitudes from sea level to 1,900 meters, in shady, damp, humid forests. In spring, Bärlauch leaves cover the forest floor and the slight scent of garlic perfumes the air. While it doesn’t grow on the mountaintops, cows were once fed this wild herb in Switzerland and gave slightly garlic-flavored milk which was made into a specialty cheese!

Tips for Harvesting Bärlauch

Berlin Forest Photo: Ian Porter

Bärlauchsammeln is a favorite activity for many a German from mid-March throughout April. It grows just about everywhere, from the outskirts of Berlin to the center of Munich‘s English Garden.

Look for its easily identifiable long, green leaves in floodplains, gorges, under bushes, or near streams or rivers. Bärlauch reaches a height of about 20 to 50 centimeters with white stems. Gather it before flowering when it is at its most aromatic.

Collecting Bärlauch within nature reserves is permitted for personal use. However, harvesters should take care to protect the plant. To allow the plant to develop further, you should harvest one leaf per plant, preferably from the stem.

Two words of warning for the uninitiated: We have only been Bärlauchsammeln with experienced gatherers as Bärlauch’s leaves are similar to those of the Llily of the valley – which is poisonous. If you are unsure what you’re looking at, grind the leaves between your fingers and smell for garlic. If it doesn’t smell like anything, leave the leaves alone.

Another note to remember is that herbs gathered in the wild must be washed before consuming. Fox excrement can carry tape worm eggs at worst, and taste awful at best.

But don’t be intimidated! My husband’s KiTa goes on a harvesting mission at least once every spring. If a rowdy group of 5-year-olds can do it (with supervision), so can you.

If all else fails, wild garlic can usually be purchased at weekly markets and I even saw some in Netto a few weeks ago. When buying a bundle, look for bright green leaves without dark spots that are firm without limpness.

Bärlauch Festival

While every restaurant seems to have an own ode to Bärlauch, the town of Eberbach considers itself the capital. Every year in March they hold the Eberbacher Bärlauchtage celebrating everything wild garlic.

Find other Bärlauch festivals here.

Bärlauch Pesto Photo: Erin Porter

Bärlauch Recipes

Bärlauch’s bulbs and leaves are both edible, though the leaves are favored. It can be used in a variety of dishes, whether it be added to salads, cooked in sausage, chopped for sauce, sauteed, or baked in bread. The leaves dehydrate quickly, but can be stored in the refrigerator for 3-5 days. Keep them loosely wrapped in a plastic bag.

Some of the most popular uses:

  • Bärlauch Butter Finely chop it and mix with quality butter. This is the easiest way to prepare it, and probably my favorite.
  • Bärlauch Pesto  Oh so trendy pesto gets a German overhaul when it is made with Bärlauch. We went with walnuts in our last batch, with tons of Parmesan, lemon zest and some olive oil. Delicious!
  • Bärlauch SoupThe herbs leafy, green and subtle garlicness is on display in this dish.
  • Bärlauch BreadThis recipe takes advantage of any leftover pesto you may have. This was my first year making it and
  • Bärlauch Pasta – This is one I have on my list to make next year. Bärlauch in the pasta, topped with Bärlauch pesto. Too much?

What’s your favorite way to prepare Bärlauch?