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Wild leek colony
Photo: Biodôme de Montréal

Making the most of spring

Wild leek (Allium tricoccum Ait.) is a perennial herb that grows in the maple stands of southern Québec. It is easily recognizable, with its one to three smooth, pale green leaves that appear as soon as the snow has melted. It is said to be a “spring ephemeral” plant, for its leaves wither after only four to six weeks, when the leaves of trees shade the undergrowth. During this short period, though, sunlight, water and minerals are plentiful, and wild leek plants manage to quickly store up annual reserves in their bulbs.

Mature plants produce a floral stalk that emerges in late May. The leaves dry up and drop off around that time, leaving the floral stalk bare. This stalk bears a cluster of flowers that open in July. The small black seeds mature by early September, but cannot germinate before the following autumn, because it takes a cold period (winter) followed by a hot period (summer) to stimulate germination in this species. A first root develops in the fall and the seedlings finally appear the following spring.

Two ways to reproduce

Started from seed, it takes seven to ten years before the bulb has accumulated enough reserves to flower. Wild leek also reproduces by bulb offsets, like tulips. Thus, a mature plant can divide in two (sometimes three) every two or three years, depending on climatic conditions. Cool, wet spring weather is ideal, while a hot, dry spring will cause the plant to go into early dormancy.

An important division

Wild leek populations in Québec propagate mainly by offsets. The sister bulbs produced are stronger and reproduce more quickly than do the small seedlings raised from seed. Nonetheless, seeds do play an important role, for they are indispensable for the colony to expand. Colonies sometimes form large, dense patches. A wild leek plant can live for over fifty years. Because of the short time it has to store up reserves in the spring and the enormous energy it expends on reproduction, there are considerable annual fluctuations in survival and reproduction rates.

There are two known varieties of wild leek. The stalk of the more common variety is somewhat red at the base (var. tricoccum). The other variety (var. Burdickii) is not pigmented at all, and its stalk remains white.

A local favorite

Wild leek is found only in the hardwood forests of northeastern North America. In Canada, it grows mainly in Ontario and Québec, although it also occurs in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. It is found throughout southern Québec, from the Outaouais valley to Montmagny, and as far northward as Mont-Laurier (see the map below).

A fondness for maple stands

Wild leek grows in rich, moist maple stands dominated by sugar maple and accompanied by white ash, linden, hickory, beech, yellow birch, etc. It grows mainly from the bottom to halfway up slopes and alongside watercourses, where the moist conditions promote germination and the growth of young plants. Gentle to medium slopes facing east and southeast are particular favourites. This species prefers well- or moderately well-drained forest soils, with a pH close to neutral (5.5-7.0). Such soil, often rich in minerals-calcium in particular-supports a variety of plant life.

In good company

Among the grasses in the undergrowth often found near wild leek are wild ginger (Asarum canadense), blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), Carolina spring beauty (Claytonia caroliniana), Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cuccullaria), squirrel corn (D. canadensis), dogtooth violet (Erythronium americanum), downy Solomon's seal (Polygonatum pubescens), large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), ill-scented trillium (T. erectum), large-flowered bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora), Canada violet (Viola canadensis) and downy yellow violet (V. pubescens). Two species of fern are often found with wild leek, i.e. northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) and ostrich fern, or fiddleheads (Matteuccia struthiopteris).

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