Wild onion grass. Three-cornered leek. Tricorn leek. Onion weed. Angled onion. Allium triquetrum. “That bloody horrible stuff that gets everywhere and makes the place stink when I mow the grass”.
Whatever you call it, you should be using it, cos it’s absolutely EVERYwhere in Victoria right now! It’s part of the onion & garlic family, and every part of the plant can be eaten. Use the greens and bulbous white stems like spring onions; sprinkle the flowers through salads and over eggs, and if you’ve got the patience to clean between all the stems, you can even turn the bases into teeny tiny pickled onions.
Given how invasive this plant can be around creekbeds and damp garden patches, it’s one of the few things that foragers can take as much as they like of. As with all foraging though, use your observation and judgement skills – don’t pick from areas where chemical contamination (ground water, fumes, sprays) might be an issue, and always respect the surrounding environment when picking.
How to identify it:
Look for grass-green, strappy leaves between 20-30cm long. Leaves and flower stems have 3 faces (and 3 corners, hence the name “3-cornered leek”), which you can see when you look at them in cross-section.
Leaves grow in groups of 8-12 from a bulbous white base, with a single flower stem emerging usually in the middle. Both leaves and flower stems are tender, bruise easily, and have a slightly slimy clear sap when broken.
Flowers emerge from a papery bracket in groups of 8-10 pointed white bells suspended from delicate green stalks. Petals have a green stripe down the middle, and stigma & stamens are yellow.
The best defining feature of this plant is its strong onion-like smell. Every part of it smells, especially when broken or bruised.
A note on imposters:
There are many wildly-occurring plants which go my some version of the name ‘onion grass’ or ‘onion weed’, so it’s really important to pay attention to the finer details when seeking an accurate ID. ‘False onion grass’ (Nothoscordum × borbonicum) is another common plant found in SE Australia, and it crops up at a similar time of year. Compared to Allium triquetrum though, it’s different enough to be relatively easily identified: it lacks the three cornered stems & leaves, it’s flowers are more rigid and lack the green stripe down the petals, and it’s fragrance is only very mildly oniony. This page from the excellent book Let’s Eat Weeds explains other lookalikes too.
Where to find it:
Wild onion grass grows in pest-like proportions throughout much of Victoria, but is less common in other states.
It likes really boggy, wet ground, so you’ll almost always find it near creekbeds, rivers and marshes. It’s also known to thrive in cool dark zones like the Dandenong Ranges, where it can be found throughout gardens and verges alike. It’s equally happy in suburban settings though, and can be found in the back corners and fencelines of many a suburban garden.
When to look for it:
Given it loves wet conditions, you’ll find wild onion grass is most prolific through winter and spring in Victoria, but if given the right damp and cool conditions, you can find it for much of autumn and even into early summer.
What to do with it:
Fresh, you can use wild onion grass very much like spring onions: chopped up through salads, sandwiches, through omelettes & scrambled eggs, over blinis, in sauces, through stirfries, in rice-paper rolls & dumplings, through scones, muffins and savoury pancakes, in herb garlic butter, and in ferments like kimchi or kraut.
The leaves don’t hold up to cooking quite as well as spring onions do – they can go a bit stringy – so just add them a bit later in the cooking process than normal.
Our favourite method of using the leaves though, is to turn them into magical umami flakes by fermenting and dehydrating them. It’s so simple, but the outcome is sensational, so we make a heap of it to last throughout the year.
The bulbous bases are super tasty, but given that the plants grow in muddy soil, it can often be more hassle than it’s worth to clean them, as mud and grit gets riiiiiiight in amongst every leaf. You know how frustrating it can be cleaning leeks? Well, these are like that only more grubby and smaller, so they’re even more fiddly.
Having said that, about every 3 years we forget this, and decide to clean enough bulbs to make a small jar of pickled wild onions. They’re delicious, and would be worth their weight in gold if you were to factor in how much time is involved in producing them!
If you want to give it a try, it’s a simple “clean bulbs, brine overnight then drain, put in a sterilised jar with some spices (we go for mustard seed, pepper, garlic and bay), then cover with hot pickling solution and seal” approach.
The flowers are lovely scattered over eggs, salads, open sandwiches, bruschetta, steamed veg, a bagel with cream cheese and more. Add flowers to plain vinegar and infuse for a month for an excellent salad dressing, and dehydrate a bunch of the flowers while they’re in abundance. They have a less pungent onion flavour than the rest of the plant, so they’re great for adding just a hint to a dish.
You can also pickle or ferment the flower buds and use them a bit like mild oniony capers. We fermented some in a 2% brine for 5 days, and then preserved them in a basic pickling solution (1 cup vinegar, 1 cup water, 1/2 cup sugar; boiled, cooled) with some mustard seeds and a bay leaf. They’re kept in the fridge and make a great addition to Yum Bowls, salads and sandwiches. At other times, we’ll skip the pickling bit, and just leave them fermented: over time, they develop some amazingly complex flavours.
Once flowers have been pollinated, the petals slowly close around swelling seedpods. As they reach their biggest size, they pull the flower heads down, making the stalks bend almost to the ground (making seed dispersal a piece of cake – just drop and grow!). This makes them easy to spot, and harvesting them is a simple matter of tugging each seedpod til it’s stalklet snaps.
If you catch them before complete maturity, the seeds will still be tender and white. These make the most excellent ‘Pearl onion’ pickles we’ve ever had. You can follow the recipe here to make your own.
If you leave the seedheads to reach full maturity, the seeds turn black and harden slightly. If you can capture a heap of these and separate them from their seedheads, they make excellent oniony seasoning to add to focaccias, hard boiled eggs and open sandwiches.
So next time you’re out walking and you notice a lush green patch of grass, check to see if it’s three-cornered leek, and take home a bunch. You’ll be helping slow the spread of an invasive weed; cutting an item off your grocery list; and building a connection to the land you live on. What a great way to use edges and value the marginal!
Permaculture Principle 2: Catch & store energy; 3: Obtain a yield; 10: Use and value diversity; 11: Use edges and value the marginal.