The lines are sometimes blurry when it comes to these two forage foods and the names are often merged so that it’s referred to as just “Wild Onion/Garlic”. Even botanists and seasoned foragers occasionally disagree on precisely how to classify these wild versions. What I have shown below are varieties that grow in our region and when these two are placed side by side, they make the differences easy enough to pick out. There is also much discussion (and disagreement) about wild onions, sometimes called and even sold as “walking onions”, being no more than escaped cultivars that were lucky enough to have had their seed dropped by a bird onto a location that is suitable to them. That logic leaves me scratching my head in bewilderment, but to each their own.
Both wild garlic and wild onion are edible and can be used just like cultivated versions. Even though they are smaller than their cultivated cousins, they both have a more intense flavor so you may find you need less to get the same amount of kick. Always check for the onion or garlic smell. If it’s present, then what you’ve found is edible. There are at least a couple of Allium look-a-likes that are not edible, so if it has the physical characteristics but no onion or garlic smell, consider it not edible and continue on your search. Also, just to clarify, the comparison below is to onion, not ramps/leeks.
Identifying From “Flowering” Tops:
Wild onion tops are larger than wild garlic and will have larger pods containing the bulb-lets. The pictures below show the distinct differences of Wild Onion (1st picture) and Wild Garlic (2nd & 3rd picture)
You can see the difference in size of the wild onion tops compared to the wild garlic, even after the wild garlic has matured, (3rd photo above) the wild onion is still notably larger with larger bulb-lets that, if left alone, will droop, take root, and grow into a new onion plant.
The stems from Wild Onion will be considerably shorter than that of Wild Garlic. Shown below is Wild Onion on the left and Wild Garlic on the right.
Identification from the Bulbs:
When making identification from the underground portion, both will have a papery outer covering, but when peeled back the onion will have tell-tale layers while the garlic will have distinct cloves. Shown first is wild onion, second is wild garlic with the first layer of cloves revealed.
Use these in place of regular onions or garlic or in place of ramps in foraged food recipes. One of our favorite parings is with Daylily greens. In this Daylily Greens Saute recipe, simply substitute chopped wild onions or garlic in place of ramps or regular onions. Wild onions may also be substituted in the recipe for Redbud Blossom Tea Sandwiches or used in a Wild Salad. They also make a great addition to any version of Fire Cider type infusion. Happy foraging!