Churchyard Nature Note with Andrew Tompsett

June 2018

Allium ursinum

Allium triquetrum

A time of garlic – to keep the devil away?


As the spring progresses our churchyard, roadside verges and uncultivated corners develop a froth of white, garlic-related flowers, lovely in their own way, which, every year, seem to be become more prolific here in Cornwall. Although the flush of white is attractive, blending with the dark azure of native bluebells, it has many critics, due to its competitive ability, spreading habit, and powerful garlic scent.

This garlic, a close relative of chives, is the Three-cornered leek (Allium triquetrum), known locally as the ‘Stinking onion’. As its name suggests it has a sharp three-sided flower stem unlike the round stems of bluebells which occasionally flower white, as well as blue or pink.

Since its introduction into West Cornwall from the Mediterranean in 1752 it has spread to all the mild South-Western counties and some even further afield. The reproductive bulbs, like small silver- skin pickling onions, may even be seen offered for sale in bulb catalogues as an attractive garden plant and a herb for wild gathering. My advice is, do not introduce it to your garden or spread it into the wild!

Our native Allium known as ‘Ramsons’ or ‘Bear’s garlic’ (A. ursinum), though not present in our churchyard, can often be seen as dense patches in damp woodlands (as at Clowance) and reproduces mainly by seed. It is more often picked for use as a flavouring herb (carefully avoiding any confusion with toxic Lily of the Valley leaves). Found in association with humans since Mesolithic times, in mainland Europe and Asia, it is also attractive to wild boar and brown bears (hence the Latin name). The leaves are broad and the flavour mild, it was at one time favoured by miners, perhaps in pasties? Even today it is used (as are nettle leaves) to wrap Cornish Yarg cheeses.

Of course garlic has attracted numerous folk tales. Author Richard Mabey recalls a conversation with a churchwarden in Buckinghamshire who said, with total conviction, that garlic in the churchyard does help to keep the devil out of the church! No doubt from such early beliefs a welter of tales has flowed concerning garlic and its use in defeating evil beings and vampires!

For those seeking a garlic flavoured salad, chives is generally preferred. This is probably also a Mediterranean species. Interesting evidence of this exists in the fact that wild chives, a Roman relic, still grows on Hadrian’s Wall. A Biblical reference to the appreciation of garlic comes from Numbers Chapter 11 describing how the Israelites en route to the promised land, survived on just manna and longed for the tasty garlic and vegetables they had left behind in Egypt!


Andrew Tompsett