Ramping up for Spring

Photo courtesy of wildwestvirginiaramps.com

Photo courtesy of wildwestvirginiaramps.com

It’s that time of year -- trees are in bloom, greens are beginning to poke their heads out of the soil, the chance of frost has passed. It’s Spring! Here on the East Coast, that means it’s also ramp season.

Ramps, or Wild Leeks, are wild edible plants in the allium family. Growing natively in the Appalachian mountains from Canada to North Carolina, ramps only appear for a few weeks before going to seed and disappearing for the Summer. As some of the first greens to appear in early Spring, ramps have historically been celebrated as a sign of Spring and a tonic to the traditional Appalachian meat-heavy Winter diet.

These days, ramps are the prized ingredient of chefs and home-cooks alike. Ramps have a taste like a mix between garlic and onion with a sweet, tangy kick. The whole plant can be eaten (we’ll get back to this!) and is tasty raw, grilled, fried, roasted, pickled... they’re kind of always delicious.

But, if you treasure your food - treasure the plants they come from! Due to over-harvesting and slow growing behavior, ramps are vulnerable to becoming endangered. Several states have added ramps to special concern lists, and in some places harvesting ramps is illegal. Here in Maryland, foraging for ramps is still legal, but it’s more important than ever to consider our food as a part of an ecosystem, not just a tasty and unique ingredient.  

So how can you enjoy ramps responsibly?

Begin by starting a conversation! Ask your local forager how they harvest!: do they harvest only the mature plants, leaving the young plants to grow and reproduce? Do they harvest the whole plant or just the leaves? Keep these questions in mind if you go foraging for ramps of your own.

Harvesting the entire plant from the roots depletes the land of ramps and can leave bare patches of soil vulnerable to erosion and invasive species. One way for sustainable harvesting  is to take only one leaf from each mature plant (although, it’s true that the white main stem is the most delicious part). Ramps only have two leaves, so leaving one allows the plant to continue to photosynthesize, grow, and reproduce.

Happy Spring, happy foraging, enjoy responsibly!