As I worked my way down the steepest portion of the valley, I could see patches of green in the distance. Some were stands of Virginia bluebells just unfurling their leaves, but most were carpets of ramps.
Experience has taught me that mid-April is ramp season. When the redbuds and dogwoods bloom and the first mayapple umbrellas appear, I know it’s time to harvest one of nature’s most flavorful crops.
I also know that in about a week or so, I can start looking for morels. Ramps are wild leeks, pungently aromatic members of the lily family. They form dense stands in rich damp soil beneath a canopy of beech, maple, poplar, oak, or hickory trees.
If you find trillium, bloodroot, trout lily, or mayapple, you’re in ramp habitat. Ramps grow rapidly for only a few weeks in the spring. Bright sunlight and spring rains trigger their growth.
Their green elongate leaves are distinctive on a forest floor that is still drably colored. In June, the leaves die back, and the plants flower. As one of the first plants to appear in the spring, rural folks have long collected ramps as one of the first greens of the season. They were considered a tonic after months of cold winter weather with no fresh vegetables.
Turns out, ramps are an excellent source of vitamin C. In fact, ounce for ounce, ramps contain more vitamin C than oranges. But it is the taste of ramps for which they are best known. Some people eagerly anticipate the annual appearance of this pungent herb that’s part onion and part garlic.
Others won’t touch the stuff because they claim its odor lingers on the breath and even taints the body for days. I’ve read tales of country children being sent home from school after eating ramps at dinner the night before.
My first taste of ramps, better known to botanists by the scientific name Allium tricoccum, came shortly after my wife and I moved to West Virginia in 1985. Neighbors encouraged us to, “dig up some ramps next spring and fry ‘em with venison.”
We did our homework and that next April we found the patch of ramps we still visit every spring. They were easy to recognize. Clumps of lush green leaves, each one broad, flat, and spear-shaped, covered the ground. And a few inches beneath the surface, we found clusters of white aromatic bulbs.
We dug up a few handfuls, rinsed them in the stream, and took them home. There we boiled them for a few minutes to tone down the flavor just a bit. Then we sauteed them with some venison tenderloins.
Since that first year, ramps have become a family favorite. We always save a few tenderloins for a special spring meal. And if the timing is right, we throw a few morels in the skillet. Perhaps because we pre-boil the ramps, we’ve never found their taste over-powering.
In fact, we’ve discovered that ramps can add a pleasantly wild flavor to soups, chili, spaghetti sauce, and stews. Ramps can also be dried and frozen for later use. Hang a few bunches in a shed or garage (I wouldn’t do this in the house), and dry thoroughly. Then they can be ground into a powder and used as a garlic substitute.
Ramps are celebrated each spring at festivals throughout Appalachia.
Rural fire departments and emergency squads sponsor ramp festivals as fund raisers. Search the internet for a festival near you. Though it’s getting late in the season, fresh ramps are available from the G-N Ramp Farm in Richwood, W.Va. (www.rampfarm.com; $21.55 for one pound, postpaid).
Or you can plant your own ramp garden. A bag of about 50 seeds sells for $4.50. Or you can order ramp bulbs in January and February ($16.75 for three dozen bulbs). Or if Appalachian Ramp Wine sounds like a better option, the Kirkwood Winery (www.kirkwood-wine.com) in Summersville, W.Va., sells bottles for $16.99.
Some folks rely on a calendar to mark the arrival of spring. Others notice the appearance of certain birds, butterflies, or wildflowers. To connoisseurs of wild foods, however, ramps are among nature’s truest harbingers of spring.