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Posts Tagged ‘ramps’

Spring is upon us, and my area has been especially subject to all the temperamental whims of its weather. One day may be in the 70s, with peepers calling in the night, and another is in the 40s and brings hard freezes as darkness falls. Because we have had a warm winter, and some very unseasonal March temperatures into the 80s, some trees have budded early and are being damaged by the weather’s mood swings. I tried covering some of my fully blooming bushes, but strong winds ripped the covers off in the night. There’s little I can do for my big fruit trees, so I leave them alone and hope for the best.

Some plants that are not as subject to these tantrums are the spring ephemerals. Spring-beauties and trout lilies cover the floor of my chunk of woodland, with bloodroot and white and red trilliums making less common appearances. Virginia cowslip is found in a rare group, uncurling sprays of blue flowers. Skunk cabbage leaves are beginning to unfurl in the more muddy spots. May apples poke from beneath the leaf litter, barely spreading their umbrella-like form.

Young mayapple plants, surrounded by the speckled leaves of emerging trout lilies.

To me, though, the ‘award’ for most obvious spring appearance belongs to the wild leek or ramp. Also known as spring onions, ramsons, wild garlic, or wood leeks, these plants can cover enormous chunks of ground in huge colonies of hundreds or thousands of individuals. They are found in much of the eastern half of the US and up into Canada, but are especially prevalent in the northeast. They provide patches of brilliant green in a time when the trees are still drab, a time when many of the ephemerals listed above are not showing their full glory (or are too small to be noticed by a casual passerby). Their bright color is a glimpse of what is soon to come – a harbinger of a forest awakening.

These are all ramps. This is just an 'average' colony.

They start like little knives, slicing through the beaten-down fallen leaves, sometimes literally piercing holes in them as they grow upward (later, you can find mature leeks still wearing these leaves like a skirt). Soon, their leaves unfurl their broad, waxy surfaces. Tapering down, the lower stem often has a reddish or burgundy tinge, but not always. The plants are anchored strongly by long, dangly roots. Manage to pull one out, and you’ll see that the bulb is covered by a membranous, slightly slimy ‘skin’. This can be slipped off in one piece, leaving a completely clean, bright white root for you to munch raw if you are so inclined.

These pungent buggers are extremely popular fare in some areas, especially the Appalachians, where they are even ingrained in folklore. Ramp festivals are even held to celebrate this humble little onion. The entire plant can be eaten, leaves included. Now, even chefs at upscale restaurants are also recognizing them as a delicacy. The main species discussed here (Allium tricoccum) is legal to sell in many areas (although some less common species with much narrower leaves are protected and should not be touched) and some sellers fetch a pretty penny for them. This presents a problem for the leek, though. As is the issue with many things with growing popularity, overharvesting has the potential to take a serious toll. The abundance of an organism doesn’t matter when it’s exploited more than it can withstand. Sellers who grab their shovels and dig up clumps – or worse, whole colonies – of ramps limit the capacity of the plant to re-establish itself, helping to eradicate it in places where it may have covered acres in years before.

My preferred digging method - simple pronged root diggers. These are usually meant for dandelions, but work well (and you may be able to see that I got the larger one for 75 cents at a yard sale)!

There’s nothing wrong with using the wild bounty, but it is best to use it responsibly so it can be there for the future, whether for us or for our children’s children. Ramps are still widespread for the most part. If you plan to harvest them, utilize populations on your own land, or get permission of the landowner before taking them. Public lands or parks may have regulations that prohibit digging or removing plants, so check them before proceeding in those areas. Dig only some individuals, and never remove entire clusters/colonies. If you use a digger like I do, it’s easy to take a plant here or there without doing much damage or disturbance to others nearby. You can still get a big bag full even if you only take a few from each group. Try to leave enough so they can replenish. This ensures that it can continue to reproduce and be harvested for years to come.

The wild ramp seems to prefer moist banks and hillsides in dappled-shade areas of woodland or along streams. They can be distinguished pretty easily by appearance, but for further proof, check that they smell strongly of garlic or onion when a piece of the leaf is broken – this ensures you do not confuse it with anything else. Early season ramps like the one seen above are the most tender and least ‘spicy’. As the season goes on, they get larger, but also get a stronger bite to them. Either way, they are versatile and, in my opinion, superior to both garlic and onions. Ramps are actually present all year round, but become harder to find when the leaves die back, visible only by the brown flowering stalks. Once these get flattened down by the elements or buried by leaves, you would have to rely on your memory of where they were to find them at all.

Ramps can be dried, pickled, or blanched and frozen (though freezing can make them lose some texture). They can also be stored in the refrigerator, unwashed, for a week or two. They can be used in place of onion or garlic in almost any recipe that calls for them as a component. I have put them in with steamed rice as a flavoring and thrown them into a stir fry. It can be put on pizza, fried with potatoes, or mixed in cream sauces. Our favorite is to toss them in with a creamy potato-leek soup recipe. Here is a comparable recipe for that, and here are a few other things you can do. A simple Google search will give you even more ideas, enough to keep you leeking it up for months to come if you turn out to be one of the people who loves them.

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