Wild ramps (Allium tricoccum) are nourishing harbingers of spring. A foraged delicacy, their leaves, stalk, and bulb are edible. The ramp is a perennial wild onion with a pungent garlic odor and leek/onion flavor. It is found in Eastern North America from southern Appalachia to central Canada and is also known as wild leek, wood leek, spring onion, wild garlic, and ail des bois. 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.
The plant has broad, smooth, light green leaves about 25 centimeters long, 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 is tear-drop shaped and usually 1-4 centimeters long. The leaves wither as the seed stalk develops, flowering in June-July. The preferred habitat is sandy, loamy moist soil under mature forest canopy. Growing in dense colonies, ramps can be found near streams and under trees ( especially beech, sugar maple, birch, poplar, hickory, oak, linden, and buckeye).
Ramps are consumed raw or cooked in soups, pesto, accompanying egg dishes, and sautéed with seasonal foraged wild greens, morels, and April’s shad harvest. Ramps have long played an important role in food culture, folklore, and traditional medicine throughout their range. Native Americans watched bears forage on ramps as they came out of hibernation. Inspired by the animals, people also sought out these spring shoots.
Recently, ramps have been publicized in the media, endless recipes are online, restaurants highlight multi-course spring menus, and food stores and farmers’ markets have propelled their popularity. This skyrocketing demand impacts the stability and longevity of this valued food product.
The present foraging techniques and the quantities being harvested have consequences that are of concern to botanists, environmentalists, and naturalists. Ramp populations and their preferred habitats are declining in many areas. 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. 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 ensure that ramps continue to thrive 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.