How to enjoy ramp season without overharvesting

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wild onion leaves

It won’t be long before the first green leaves will start emerging in deciduous forests across the Midwest. You won’t notice them looking into the canopy. In fact, they will blanket the forest floor.

Ramps are harbingers of spring, carpeting woodlands in Ohio from late March to mid-April. They are highly sought after by foragers for their unique flavor, which resembles both garlic and onion.

Identifying ramps

Ramps are one of the earliest plants to emerge in the spring, so their wide, flat, bright green leaves are easily seen against the brown leaf litter and debris that lines the floors of deciduous forests. They most commonly grow in clusters and can be just as easily identified by their oniony, garlicky scent.

Each ramp bulb produces two broad, flat green leaves. These elongated, oval leaves are about 2-3 inches wide and 6-8 inches long with burgundy tints on the lower stems coming out of the ground. The lower leaf stalks and bulbs are white. All parts of the plant are edible; however, make sure you’ve identified it correctly before consuming because it can easily be mistaken for lily of the valley, which is poisonous and doesn’t smell or taste like onion. Ramps have the strongest smell and flavor closest at the bulb. If you’re in doubt, scratch away a layer and smell it.

Ramps are plentiful in the well-drained, rich, shady soils of beech and maple hardwood forests along rivers, streams and the black dunes along the Great Lake shoreline, stretching east to New York, west into Wisconsin and Minnesota, south into Appalachia and north to Canada. They are frequently found alongside mayapples and trout lily.

Harvest responsibly

Ramps have become at risk of being over-harvested in recent years because of a spike in popularity among hobby foragers and restaurants. They have been primarily harvested off of public lands with little consideration of sustainability, which has negatively impacted the wild ramp population in some areas. 

Foragers should learn of the distribution of ramps in the area before harvesting. In areas where ramp populations are sparse, only the tops should be harvested. They offer the same flavor as the bulbs in a more mild delivery.

The reason for leaving the bulbs is because ramps have such a long growth cycle. It takes about 18 months for a ramp seed to germinate. Then, another two years for the seed to grow into a small bulb, sprouting two leaves. At this stage, the plant can start producing seeds, sending up a flower stalk with a white flower cluster in midsummer that bears small round ⅛-inch seeds. It takes about 4 to 6 years for the plant to develop a mature, sizable bulb (1 ½ inches actress) that is ready to harvest. Continually, harvesting all of the ramps in an area will wipe them out faster than they can regenerate a local population.

If you choose to harvest fully mature bulbs, you should take no more than 5-15% of a cluster. However, the most sustainable way to enjoy wild ramps is to clip only the tops.

Propagating ramps

Transplanting ramps in the wild can help expand stands of the plant and creating forest gardens for private use can provide a sustainable option to enjoy bulbs in the spring.

If you live in an area where native ramps flourish and can grow them in a woodlot with moist, shady soil beneath maple, oak, hickory, buckeye, beech and birch trees, you might consider cultivating your own ramps. 

Transplanting. Cultivating ramps by dividing clusters and transplanting them can be tricky. You need to be gentle when dividing matura clusters in the spring, taking no more than 5-15% of the clump.

Seeds. You can sow ramp seeds at any time, but the best time is during late summer to early fall. Remember, they take 18 months to germinate. Your total time from when you sow them to your first harvest will be 5-7 years.

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