By G. Chambers, SFBCA Vice Chairman
Spring brings with it two of my favourite seasons : trout season and Wild Leek season.
Like most things in the Scarborough Fly and Bait Casting Association, the elusive Wild Leek was introduced to me by our President, Gord Deval. As an aficionado of all things wild, edible, and free Gord is happy to share his secret Wild Leek location, provided of course you’re willing to do the work, dig them up and bring him a bunch too.
Where to Find:
Of course, once you know what to look for, finding Wild Leeks is not that difficult. A common trick for locating Wild Leeks is to find a patch of wild Trilliums. Wild Leeks and Trilliums tend to be the first green leaved plants to pop out of the ground in Spring and they both prefer the shady growing conditions found in wooded areas. Basically, find a Trillium and chances are Wild Leeks will be growing nearby.
For years, I mistakenly thought Wild leeks were Trout Lily or pre-flowering Lily of the Valley. All three plants grow in clumps in the forest and have similar elongated leaves that end in a point.
The Trout Lily is easier to identify since it’s leaves have mottled brown spots, whereas the Wild Leek leaf is pure green.
The Wild Leek can be differentiated from Lily of the Valley by inspecting the stem. The stem of Lily of the Valley is pale green whereas the stem of the Wild Leek is purplish red where it meets the leaf and fades to bright white just above the bulb.
Follow Your Nose:
If you still have trouble visually identifying Wild leeks, you could always use your nose. Wild Leeks, after all, are a member of the genus Allium, which includes such pungent cousins as onions, garlics and common leeks.
When you get close to a patch of Wild Leeks you’ll probably notice a faint garlicky aroma long before you see the leaves. In fact, once I when I was driving a country road looking for Wild Leeks, the deep underbrush made it difficult to peer into the forest. Not to be denied, I slowed down the car, opened the window and drove on until the scent of garlic wafted into the car. Within minutes I had found my garlicky treasure.
Tip: Not sure if a plant is Wild Leek? Pluck a leaf and ball it in your hand. You should smell a distinct garlic odour
Harvesting Wild Leeks:
When collecting Wild Leeks you’ll need a few household tools.
- Kitchen shears
- Gardening gloves
- VERY sturdy, sharp steel trowel
- Plastic bag for storing
Some people only like eating the leaves. In this case you’ll just need the shears to snip the leaves. If harvesting the whole plant you’ll need to use the trowel and gloves. Wild leeks have strong, fibrous roots that hold the plant into the ground like super glue. Don’t try to pull the plant out by the stem…you’ll just end up with a handful of leaves and no bulb. Instead, stab the trowel into the centre of the clump then dig down and around the section that you want to harvest. Use the trowel to slices the roots. At this point get your hands in there and break up some of the soil around the bulbs. Grasp the stem near the bulb, give it a bit of a wiggle and the whole mass should come free.
TIP: harvest Wild Leeks after a rainfall. The moistened soil makes it easier to dig out the plants.
The root system of the Wild Leek holds a lot of dirt, therefore it’s best to rinse them off outside with a hose or allow them to soak in a bucket. Once the dirt is removed use a sharp knife to trim off the roots.
I then cut the stems from the leaves. I reserve the leaves for quick sauteeing and the stems and bulbs for pickling or recipes requiring longer cooking times.
Next, you’ll want to remove the chewy outer skin surrounding the stem and bulb. To do this, grasp the bulb and using the thumb and index finger of your other hand run them along the stem towards where you cut off the leaf. The skin should slip off without much effort.
A Couple of Words of Warning:
Wild leeks are extremely slow growing. It takes 5 to 7 years for a plant to reach full maturity. If you find a clump of Wild Leeks, don’t be greedy and dig up every single bulb or snip every leaf. Instead take maybe 1/3 of the clump then move on to another clump and do the same. This ensures they’ll be plenty of leeks left for everyone for years to come.
Finally, Wild Leeks can be found all around Toronto, including in local parks. Technically, it is illegal to remove Wild Leeks or any other plant from public property so keep this in mind when foraging. A better option would be to find a patch near the side of a road or on private property (ask for permission first).