Country diary: wild garlic makes the greenwood greener

Wenlock Edge, Shropshire: this is mythologised woodland, a secular sacred place, a hunting ground and a sanctuary

Sunlight pools on thousands of wild garlic leaves on the bank of an abandoned railway cutting. Trees stand in companionable silence, the breath between them is slight. Days ago, slender ash trunks rattled like yacht masts in a marina, hawthorns hissed in the east wind, great oaks and steeple limes soughed in deep snowy murmurs. Much of the storm wreckage has been cleared from the path; it is now a gallery full of early birdsong and light falling in patches as if from high windows.

Yesterday a blackbird repeated a one … two-three … four syllable phrase of song; today it is elaborated by bright description and excited story. Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It about the bird under the greenwood tree singing “come hither” with no enemy but “winter and rough weather”.

Well, they’ve had plenty of that this year, and it may not be over yet, but the birds are now a loose chorus, building from individual fragments towards the great jamming signal that blocks out all other realities and conjures the greenwood.

Wild garlic (Allium ursinum).
Wild garlic (Allium ursinum). Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The greenwood is mythologised woodland, a secular sacred place, a hunting ground and sanctuary that exists in the idea of liberty expressed through ecological relationships between its plants, animals, fungi, spirits, ghosts and ourselves. In ancient woods or along this railway line, the greenwood has its origins underground, in the myriad cells of microbes and mycelium threads of fungi.

In the clay, the greenwood is also growing from the moony roots of Allium ursinum, wild garlic, ramsons. They emerge as bristles, opening into two or three leaves per bulb on long stalks twisted at 180 degrees, Lincoln green with pointed tips.

In last week’s snow the tips were turning black from frostbite, now they are glossy in the sun, thick as a lawn and just about ready for picking (where the dogs haven’t been). Soon these leaves will pong of the erotic, rebellious free spirit of woods outside the jurisdiction of civilisation, a smell that takes us back to memories of gathering and a daring between true seasons.

• Paul Evans is appearing at the Lancaster literary festival ( on Saturday 24 March


Paul Evans

The GuardianTramp

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