Wild leeks: Spring is RAMPing up!

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harvested ramps
Ramps are an incredibly popular wild edible with many culinary applications. (Tami Gingrich photo)

I love wild edibles. I’m not a fanatic, but I certainly know how to casually reap the benefits that Mother Nature has to offer. That’s why I get excited in late March, when the floor of the deciduous forest begins to take on a bright green hue. This is when the first spring ephemerals, the ramps, also known as wild garlic or leeks, erupt through the rich, moist soils and the smell of onion permeates the air.

Ramps (Allium tricoccum) are found throughout much of eastern North America. A member of the amaryllis family, the growth of their two broad leaves with purple-tinged stems originates from a conical-shaped bulb beneath the soil. As their smooth edges begin to unfurl, the leaves resemble those of tulips before finally flattening out to an impressive 3-inch width and 8-inch height.

Ramps are found throughout much of eastern North America. A member of the amaryllis family, the growth of their two broad leaves with purple-tinged stems originates from a conical-shaped bulb beneath the soil. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Don’t blink, however, as their leafy presence is brief, and they begin to yellow and die back as soon as the trees above leaf out and shade the forest floor beneath.

What makes ramps unique is the fact that their flowers don’t bloom until their leaves have withered away. Soon after, a stiff leafless stem (scape) appears, eventually sporting a starburst of small white flowers at the tip. Once pollinated, each flower produces a shiny black seed that will drop into the duff for future germination.

Ramps appear as brilliant green splotches on the brown forest floor. As dropped seeds germinate year after year (ramps also spread by rhizomes), the patch grows in diameter, and eventually, touches neighboring patches, forming a verdant carpet across the woodland.

ramps
In late March, the first spring ephemerals, the ramps, also known as wild garlic or leeks, erupt through the rich, moist soils and the smell of onion permeates the air. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Trending

Ramps are an incredibly popular wild edible with many culinary applications. In fact, ramps are celebrated at many annual spring festivals that take place throughout its range in April and May. Google “ramp festival” and you may be surprised to find one near you.

In fact, the popularity of ramps has skyrocketed in the past decade, having become highly sought after by elite restaurant chefs and commonly sold at farmers’ markets. As with many things that end up in the limelight, resources become quickly diminished as a result of greed. Sadly, intense overharvesting is taking its toll on the wild populations.

ramp flowers
Once pollinated, each ramp flower produces a shiny black seed that will drop into the duff for future germination. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Sound harvesting

From seed to flower, ramps can take anywhere from 3 to 10 years to mature depending upon factors such as climate, soil type and habitat. To reclaim a thick patch, over 15 years is needed. That is why it is so important to practice techniques in sound harvesting. Pick just the leaves whenever possible and never pick them all from the same plant or location. Move around.

Use a knife or scissors to cut the leaf while making sure that the bulb remains firmly rooted in the soil. If you must harvest the bulbs, remember to take only one or two per patch. In this way, your ramp population will remain healthy and vigorous.

Palate pleasers

pesto
Tami Gingrich has also made ramp-hickory nut pesto out of the wild edibles she’s foraged. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Years ago, I worked to establish ramps in the woodland surrounding our house with much success. It’s incredibly convenient to step outside the front door and gather a handful of leaves to cook up with some scrambled eggs or to toss on a fresh salad.

As my ramp palate reawakens, I find myself digging through files in search of my favorite recipes. I love whipping up a ramp-hickory nut pesto. I divide this into small portions and place them in the freezer so that I will be assured of having something “rampy” to eat year-round. Mixing a portion of this concoction into homemade mashed potatoes is divine.

Yet, the recipe that tops them all is ramp beer bread. Made with freshly chopped ramps, smoked Gouda cheese and a nut-brown ale, I always seem to have plenty of friends around when I pull a couple of loaves out of the oven. It is truly to die for and seems to disappear in a flash.

Of all the seasons, Spring is by far my favorite, and ramps provide the gateway that directs me happily into its grip.

Made with freshly chopped ramps, smoked gouda cheese and a nut-brown ale, Tami Gingrich always seems to have plenty of friends around when she pulls a couple of loaves of her ramp beer bread out of the oven. (Tami Gingrich photo)

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A life-long resident of Geauga County in northeast Ohio, Tami Gingrich recently retired from a 31-year career as a Biologist/Field Naturalist with Geauga Park District. Tami has been a licensed bird bander for over 30 years. Her hobbies include photography, lepidoptera, gardening and spending time with her husband on their small farm in Middlefield, Ohio. She welcomes any questions or comments at Royalwalnutmoth@gmail.com and will gladly consider suggestions for future articles.

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