Ark of Taste
Ramps are nourishing harbingers of spring, breaking through lingering snow and ice. A foraged delicacy, their leaves, stalk and bulb are edible. They are sweetish with a slight pungency. A perennial wild onion with a pungent garlic odor with leek/onion flavor, it is found in Eastern North America from South Carolina to Canada. Also known as wild leek, wood leek, spring onion, wild garlic.
The plant has broad smooth light green 10” long leaves often with a hint of deep purple or burgundy on the lower stems. It has a scallion like stalk producing a flower and the bulb measures half an inch round. Plant leaves wither as the seed stalk develops, flowering in June-July. The preferred habitat is sandy, loamy moist soil under the woodlands canopy. Growing in dense colonies they can be found near streams and under trees. (Beech, Sugar Maple, Birch, Poplar, Hickory, Oak, Linden and Buckeye).
Raw or cooked in soups, pesto, accompanying egg dishes and sautéed with seasonal foraged wild greens, morels and April’s Shad harvest. After winter months with few fresh greens available this ingredient brings forth earthy flavors and revitalizes the palate. Thoreau referred to eating ramps as a “tonic of the wilderness.”
The origin of the word ramps can be traced back to the old dialects of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The word ramp comes from “rams” or “ramson” an Elizabethan dialect rendering of wild garlic. Ramps have played a part in food culture, folklore and medicinal applications. Native Americans watched the bears forage as they came out of hibernation. Inspired by the animals, they too sought out these spring shoots.
Ramps have been embraced by the Appalachian Mountain region. West Virginia is considered the heart of ramp country, where one will find numerous festivals celebrating the harvest.
With the arrival of the food to table movement ramps have been publicized in the media, endless recipes are online, restaurants highlight multi-course spring menus, food stores and farmers markets have propelled their popularity. This skyrocketing demand impacts the stability and longevity of this valued food product.
Ramps can be foraged and there are specialized farms providing seeds/bulbs promoting cultivation in the Eastern North America and Canada regions. From the Appalachian Mountains, Hudson Valley, Berkshires and Quebec foragers have staked out their prized ramp harvesting territories.
The present foraging techniques and the quantities meeting the demand have consequences that are alerting botanists, environmentalists and naturalists. Both their habitat and species are vulnerable. Ramps are considered a plant species of special concern in Maine, Rhode Island and Tennessee. National parks in both the United States and Canada prohibit ramp foraging. In Smokey Mountain Park restrictions have been implemented to protect ramp populations it was learned that 90% of the ramp patches harvested would take 100 years to recover. Patches 25% harvested was estimated to take 10 years to recover. Even a harvest of 2% can take up to two years to flourish again. The Eastern North American region could adapt the preservation efforts lead by Canada and Europe to ensure the future of this treasured food.
Ramp seeds take 6-18 months to germinate. The plant can take 5-7 years to produce seed. They are slow growers in a delicate ecosystem of the woodlands. To assure ramps prevail for years to come there are sustainable harvest practices that can be implemented and honored. One should be cautious and safely harvest only one of every dozen ramps in a patch. The entire plant and roots should not be taken, only the mature leaves. Leaving the plant intact ensures sustainability.