By Amy Crowell
Photography by Bill Albrecht
In late winter and early spring, you might notice the strong smell of garlic or onions rising from underfoot as you walk along a river or lowland trail. Follow your nose to the small, green plants with elongated flat or slightly tubular leaves extending long and tall from underground bulbs and you will most likely find yourself in a wild onion or garlic patch.
Nearly a dozen species of wild onions and garlic, or wild alliums, grow in Central Texas. I use the genus name allium because wild onions and wild garlic are common names, often used indiscriminately to describe the same plant. One way to distinguish between cultivated onions and garlic is to examine the leaves— cultivated onions have hollow, rounded and tubular leaves, and cultivated garlic has flat leaves. This is not always true among their wild relatives. However, the important thing to remember is that both wild garlic and wild onions are edible, and so closely related, that sometimes even botanists can’t tell the difference.
A straight and sturdy flowering stalk emerges from the center of the bulb with clusters of white, red, purple or pink flowers on top. The leaves and underground bulbs are edible, and delicious in sautés, soups, quiches or any other dish that requires onions or garlic.
In addition to the telltale fragrance, another distinguishing characteristic of some wild alliums is the small cluster of teardrop-shaped bulblets just below each flower at the top of the stalk. These adorable baby onions are edible and easy to snap off with your fingers to fill your pockets. Some even pickle the bulblets.
When harvesting wild onions, be sure to pick plants with the distinct odor of onions and garlic since there are similar-looking toxic plants that will not smell like onions or garlic. And take only what you need to ensure the patch of wild alliums will continue to reproduce and thrive year after year.