Nature Bulletin No. 184 March 21, 1981
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
In 1673-74, when Father Marquette and his party journeyed from what
is now Green Bay, Wisconsin, and returned by way of what is now
Chicago. It is recorded that one of their chief foods was the "wild
onion": probably the Wild Leek and the Meadow Garlic in the woods
of Wisconsin, and the Nodding Onion so abundant in the wet prairies
Two of the first plants to push through the ground in spring, along
with the skunk cabbage, are the wild leek and the wild garlic. A
woodsman will eat handfuls of their tender leaves, which is all right if
he stays in the woods away from people. Believe it or not, leeks,
garlics and onions are "outlaw" members of the lily family. Their
flavor and odor are due to an oil-like vegetable compound of sulfur
which is volatile and dissipated by heat, making them more palatable
when cooked -- particularly if boiled In 3 different waters.
The wild leek, which grows in rich moist woodland soils, has a cluster
of bulbs on a short underground stem, and 2 or 3 broad flat tongue-like
leaves which wilt and disappear before the plant blooms in June or
July. The flower stalk, 4 to 5 inches tall, is topped by an umbel (like
the ribs of an umbrella) of a number of white flowers. Cows will eat all
the wild leek they can find, but it taints their milk and butter. The
plant was a favorite food of the early hunters and fur trappers. pioneers
had "leek parties" featured by leek soup.
Wild garlic, or meadow garlic, is common in moist meadows and
moist open woodlands. It has only one small bulb, much sweeter and
more palatable than those of the wild leek, and very narrow flat leaves.
It blooms in May or June, and some or all of the pinkish flowers, at the
top of a stem from 8 to 4 inches tall, are usually replaced by bulblets
that are excellent for pickles. The underground bulb, if gathered in
early spring or late autumn, makes mighty good creamed soup. The
young leaves are good in salads, greens, or for seasoning.
garlic or Crow garlic, introduced into our eastern states from
Europe, has spread as far west as Missouri. Preferring fields, pastures
and lawns, and difficult to get rid of. It has a very offensive odor and is
one of our most evil weeds. From its very small hard bulb, rise many
slender hollow leaves and a flower stalk bearing a dense umbel of
small greenish or purplish flowers which are replaced by bulblets
about the shape and size of a grain of wheat. If eaten by cows, their
milk is worthless. Wheat containing the bulblets is unfit for flour until
they are removed.
The nodding onion has an oblong bulb from which grow very slender
flat leaves and a 12 to 24-inch flower stalk curving downward at the
top, with a dangling umbel of rose-colored or white bell-shaped
It grows on banks, hillsides and prairies in many parts of the United
States, and formerly was so abundant in Illinois prairies that the
landscape was tinged with pink when it bloomed in midsummer. The
bulb is good to eat if parboiled, and excellent when pickled. Bulb and
leaves can be used for soup flavoring, and the leaves can be cooked
like asparagus or used as greens. An old home remedy for coughs and
colds was onion syrup; and a remedy for earache was a little bulb of
wild garlic cooked and placed, piping hot, in your ear.
Caution: Some plants with bulbs and leaves resembling onions, but
lacking the familiar odor, are among the deadliest poisonous plants
including the Death Camass and Fly Poison or Stagger Grass -- both
responsible for the deaths of many grazing animals.
Some people boil wild onions in three waters and then throw them all
away, including the onions.
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Update: June 2012