How to not confuse Bear’s garlic with Lily-of-the-valley, autumn crocus, Jack-in-the-pulpit or Solomon’s seal!

Be careful when collecting wild garlic!

March to May is bear’s garlic season once again! Many people are now on the lookout for the young leaves for herb butter, pesto or soup, but beware! There are some poisonous plants that occur at similar times in the same locations: Lily of the Valley, Autumn Crocus, Jack-in-the-pulpit and Solomon’s Seal. A safe identification is therefore essential. Please only collect plants for consumption that you have been able to identify without doubt! You can identify the leaves with Flora Incognita, but you should also know how to distinguish bear’s garlic from the other confusing species.

Bear’s garlic or lily of the valley?

You can find bear’s garlic leaves (Allium ursinum) from March to June in alluvial, deciduous and mixed forests. It is not uncommon to find the poisonous leaves of the lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) mixed in! What is easiest is to look at how the leaves grow out of the ground: bear’s garlic seems to grow “straight out of the ground” and has a clearly recognisable stem, whereas lily of the valley usually sprouts two leaves from a rhizome – and they encompass a pseudo-stem. This means they are not as clearly divided into “stem and leaf” as bear’s garlic. Other distinguishing features are: Bear’s garlic leaves are dark green and soft, especially after picking they quickly start to collapse. Lily of the valley leaves are light green and firmer. Wild garlic has a clear midrib and parallel veins that are widely spaced. Lily of the valley does not have a distinct midrib and has very narrowly spaced nerves.

Bear’s garlic or autumn crocus?

Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) sprout their leaves now – but they do not flower until autumn. Caution: Even eating the smallest amounts can lead to severe poisoning! You are more likely to find them in meadows than in the forest, and also their leaves are not clearly divided into “leaf and stem”. They grow without a stem from a rosette in the ground and also often enclose a large, green fruit capsule. Unlike bear’s garlic leaves, they are almost stiff and shiny on both sides – the underside of bear’s garlic leaves is rather dull.

Bear’s garlic or Jack-in-the-pulpit?

It is mainly the young leaves of Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arum maculatum) that can lead to confusion with bear’s garlic – because they too are now sprouting in nutrient-rich deciduous forests. Very young leaves lack the typical spots and barbs at the base of the stem, but they already show the irregular veining, which clearly distinguishes them from bear’s garlic.

 Bear's garlic or Solomon's seal?

Bear’s garlic or Solomon’s seal?

Individual plants of bear’s garlic and the species of solomon’s seal (Polygonatum sp.) are probably unlikely to be confused. The risk here is rather that an individual specimen of solomon’s seal can become indistinguishable in mass occurrences of bear’s garlic and thus, in case of carelessness, be collected along with it. The parallel-veined, long-oval leaves are indeed similar to those of bear’s garlic, but they grow alternately on a stem and have a grey-green underside.

Olfactory test

Bear’s garlic is mainly recognisable by its aromatic smell, reminiscent of garlic. The confusing species don’t exactly do this, but if you have already collected and crushed a few leaves of bear’s garlic, your fingers will smell very strongly, making reliable identification by smell no longer possible.

Observe plants in the course of the year

It is only the leaves that can lead to confusion with bear’s garlic. As with other plants that are collected for consumption, we recommend that you visit their locations regularly throughout the year and look at how the individual plants flower and fruit. This way you can be sure to see, feel and smell which leaves belong to which flower: Jack-in-the-pulpit forms a characteristic “stick” of spatha and cob between April and May. Lily of the valley forms grape-like bells, almost at the same time as bear’s garlic, which forms star-shaped pure white flowers from May to June. And lastly, the autumn crocus shows its pink flowers – in autumn.

This article was displayed as a story in the Flora Incognita app in spring 2022/23. In the app you can always find exciting information about plants, ecology, species knowledge, as well as tips and tricks for plant identification. Check it out!

Early bloomers of the phenological mid spring

Phenological season: Mid spring

The German Weather Service (Deutscher Wetterdienst – DWD) uses the flowering of forsythia and the beginning of leaf development of gooseberry as indicators for mid spring. In the next weeks, fruit trees open their flowers (cherry, pear) and beech and birch start growing their leaves. To monitor mid spring, we’d love for you to capture the following species by ID’ing them with the Flora Incognita app! Please make sure that your GPS is shared so that we can record your plants’ locations. Thank you!

Wood Anemone – Anemone nemorosa
The wood anemone often grows in large numbers in beech or mixed forests. Even if its flowers attract the first insects, the wood anemone mainly disperses vegetatively – its 30-centimetre-long, creeping rhizome lies about 1 cm below the surface of the soil. Be careful: All plant parts are poisonous!

Coltsfoot – Tussilago farfara
The coltsfoot forms a yellow inflorescence in early spring. Only after they have withered, the large kidney-shaped leaves begin to appear. While still blooming, the small brownish scaly leaves can be photographed as leaves for the app. It may not seem like a special plant, but their flowers are an important marker in terms of phenological monitoring.

Lesser Celandine – Ficaria verna
Lesser celandine or pilewort appears in early spring in various places. Some individuals show brown drawings on their leaves. The blooming period stretches over a long time, in most years until May. What we’re interested in is where and when the first flowers of lesser celandine appear, so look out for it, please!”

Blackthorn – Prunus spinosa
Blackthorn is also often called sloe. Its pure white flowers can be found on forest edges or shrubberies, where the medium-sized bush with its long thorns creates an ideal hiding space for birds. The blue berries ripen late in the year and are usually harvested after the first frost because the cold reduces the bitterness of the fruits. We‘d like to record the phenology of the blackthorn flowering stage and be happy if you contributed.

Even in cities, early bloomers get off to a fast start: warm street pavements ensure that there is already something to discover in many places! Here are a few examples:

  • Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) – Adapted to disturbed soils, it fruits within a few weeks and then catapults its seeds up to 1.4 metres!
  • Draba verna, the spring draba, is a short-lived, few centimetres tall tiny plant among Central European flowering plants. It loves light, lean, dry sites and often mass populates pavement cracks in spring.
  • The stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) is named after the unpleasant smell of its leaves. An exciting fact: yeast cultures in the nectar ensure that the temperature in the flower can be up to 6 °C above that of the surrounding area!
  • The genus speedwell (Veronica) comprises about 450 species, of which about 50 occur in Germany. The species of the genus are usually quite small, have blue flowers and many of them bloom very early in the year.
  • There are also early bloomers among the grasses. Sesleria varia is widespread throughout Germany. However, it only grows on calcareous soils such as stony, dry grasslands. It flowers from March to May.
  • Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) blossoms in March/April, even earlier in mild areas. The flowers, rich in nectar and pollen, are the first food for honey bees and wild bees, in addition to the willow. In autumn, their fruits are very popular with songbirds.