WHAT ARE WILD LEEKS?
Wild leeks (Allium tricoccum) are a slow growing perennial plant in the onion family native to the hardwoods forests of Northeastern North America. They are an ephemeral species similar to Trilliums in that they grow, flower, and set seed in a few short weeks in early spring. They emerge to take advantage of the short period of full sun the forest floor receives after the snow has melted, but before the trees leaf out. Generally during the month of May in Muskoka.
I love Wild Leeks and sharing them with my community. In many parts of their range though their popularity as a wild food has led to them to be over-harvested to the point of near extinction deeming them a threatened species with a ban on picking them in many regions. This is a plant takes 7-15 years to mature and multiply. Patches that are over harvested can take many, many years to recover. We encourage ethical harvesting of Wild Leeks in order to keep them as an important part of the forest ecosystem. Wild Leeks are very strong in flavor. A little goes a long way in recipes and remember you cannot substitute Wild Leeks for traditional Leeks. Take only what you need, and use what you take.
WHERE TO HARVEST LEEKS
The most appropriate place for foraging is on private property. You need to have the permission of the owner, otherwise it is considered trespassing and charges could apply. This also allows you to ensure you are the only harvester at that patch of Leeks and controls accidental overharvesting.
Harvesting along roadsides in Muskoka is commonly practiced, but not encouraged for a number of reasons. It’s dangerous to have stopped cars along our windy cottage roads, there is likely residue from winter road salt in the soil making the plants not healthy to harvest, and you are likely on private land, which without permission is trespassing.
Conservation areas, municipal, provincial and national parks all have their own rules for harvesting plants for personal use. For sensitive species like Wild Leeks I personally recommend not harvesting in high use public recreation areas as many other people may also be picking from these patches. If you do pick, please pick leaves only.
Foraging is wonderful way to connect with nature. It’s a very satisfying to wild harvest your own food from the forest, but you need to be cautious. Although most plants in the forests of Muskoka are non-toxic, there are a few that are deadly. Mushrooms are much more difficult than plants to identify and ensure safety. You should never consume a wild plant or mushroom that you are not 100% certain of identification. Use caution and multiple credible resources for identification.
Wild Leeks are only visible in very early spring before the hardwoods trees fully leaf out. They have 2-3 smooth entire leaves with a burgundy base and a white bulb with a base of short white roots. The plant will smell strongly of garlic/onion. The leaves are papery and translucent when light shines through them. A similar looking plant, Lily-of-the-valley is a highly toxic common garden plant that can easily be mistaken for Wild Leeks. The leaves of Lily-of-the-valley swirl, the leaves are thick and not transparent, and the plant does not have the characteristic odor of Wild Leeks.
The most sustainable way to harvest Wild Leeks is to just pick one leaf from each plant. The leaves contain all the same flavor of the bulb without killing the plant. This allows the bulb and root to remain intact, allows the plant to flower, set seed, and does not disturb the soil. Another option is to carefully cut the bulb approximately a half centimetre above the roots leaving them intact. This still does often kill the plant, but the roots remain intact.
If you are choosing to harvest the entire plant we encourage you to follow the following guidelines;
- Select patches that are large (2m2) in size in forests abundant in Wild Leeks.
- Never take more than 5% of the patch and harvest from a different one the following year.
- How to dig Leeks;
- Using a shovel to dig out a small section dense growing Leeks.
- Carefully knock the soil from the roots back into the hole they came from. This soil contains dormant seeds.
- Separate the small immature leeks from the large ones you are harvesting
- Replant the small ones in the hole, or use them to propagate a new patch.
- Use the whole plant. The leaves, bulb, and even the roots can be used in recipes. If you harvest it, use it!
GROW YOUR OWN
If you don’t have your own patch of Wild Leeks to harvest from you can plant your own. They grow happily in the rich and moist shaded soil under hardwoods (deciduous) trees. Although they may be slow to grow, they transplant very well and have a high success rate from seed (Though the seed will lay dormant for 2 years before sprouting). Patches may be started by planting the small immature Leeks from your harvest, or even better, transplanted from properties to be developed. Ensure the roots of the Leeks are planted into the mineral soil under the soft layer of leaves.
The best way to get your hands on plants or seeds is to support local native plant nurseries. They are also very knowledgeable and happy to help you make sure you are selecting the right location for your Leeks. Here are a selection of native plant nurseries that carry Wild Leek plants and/or seed in Ontario.
- Claremont Native Plants (http://www.nativeplants.ca)
- Grow Wild (http://nativeplantnursery.ca/)
- Williams Nursery (http://stwilliamsnursery.com/)