Is it a ramp? Or a leek? Are those onions, chives, or garlic? I see confusion and arguments about the names of these plants on social media every spring. And I always think to myself “Who cares! It doesn’t matter what you call it. If it smells like onion/garlic and has a bulb like onion/garlic, it’s an Allium. You can eat it.” But then I got bored sitting at home, so I decided I would go ahead and talk about these plants for those of you who like to name things. 🙂
First of all, I should point out that common names are variable from place to place. Often there are multiple common names for a single species of plant. Conversely, the same common name can apply to multiple different plants. Obviously this sort of thing can lead to confusion. So I have spoken with several foragers from around the Great Lakes area. What follows is a general consensus with regards to the common names of Alliums. If you use these names differently, it’s not a big deal. Because no matter what you call it, if it smells like onion/garlic and has a bulb like onion/garlic, it’s an Allium. You can eat it.
The first place I see confusion is with “leeks” and “ramps”. These two common names are interchangeable. However, they both refer to two different plants. There are narrow-leaved leeks/ramps (Allium burdickii) and wide-leaved leeks/ramps (Allium tricoccum). The plants look very similar, with 2 main differences: The narrow-leaved leek/ramp has narrower leaves and is white at the base. The wide-leaved leek/ramp has wider leaves and is pinkish purple at the base. Most people don’t bother to differentiate narrow-leaved vs wide-leaved when they talk about leeks/ramps. They simply call them leeks/ramps. Because it doesn’t matter if it has wider leaves or narrower leaves. If it smells like onion/garlic and has a bulb like onion/garlic, it’s an Allium. You can eat it.
The second place I see confusion is with “onions”, “chives”, and “garlics”. Everyone generally agreed that onions and chives have round, hollow leaves, while garlics have a more grass-like leaf.
“Onion” and “chive” are used to refer to at least half a dozen different Allium species. Field guides call all of these plants by several common names, including wild onion, nodding onion, spring onion, and wild chives. The same common names are matched to different species names in different guides. But no matter how they are named in the field guides, the terms onion and chive almost always refer to plants with round, hollow leaves. No one I spoke to really differentiated between the various common names. It’s not necessary to differentiate between these plants because, again, if it smells like onion/garlic and has a bulb like onion/garlic, it’s an Allium. You can eat it. In general, the green part of all Alliums with round, hollow leaves can be referred to simply as onion or chive. The bulb of these plants is always called an onion.
Wild garlic, sometimes called field garlic, refers to 3 or 4 different species of Allium. “Garlic” typically refers to plants with flatter, grass-like leaves that are not hollow. Field guides and the foragers I spoke with all seem to agree that it is not necessary to distinguish different species of garlic. In fact, most of the foragers agreed that there is really no reason to distinguish between any of the Alliums. At least, not in terms of how you use them. You use them all in the exact same way you would use onions or garlic from your garden or the grocery store. So stop worrying about what these plants are called. Call them whatever you want. Because as long as it smells like onion/garlic and has a bulb like onion/garlic, it’s an Allium. You can eat it.