Nothing screams spring like ramps. This time of year they creep into menus in the eastern portion of the United States. Ramps are an ephemeral and seasonal food item and are often in high demand, during Spring, by chefs and home cook/foragers. It can be fried, roasted, minced, turned into pesto or chimichurri, dried and mixed with salt, turned into vinegar, wrapped in mountain ham, and pickled. The list is almost endless.
What are ramps you ask? Ramps, Allium tricoccum, also known as “wild leeks” are part of the Allium family (onion, leeks, garlic). They are at their peak in the Ohio River Valley as I write this article (Late April). They grow wild and are native to a large swath of ground that includes Canada and about half of the Eastern United States.
They sound common and prolific, right? Not really.
The current supply at markets and to chefs makes it seem like these wild leeks are abundant and common place. In restaurants and farmers’ markets you’ll find whole ramps—long soft green leaves tapering into a rhubarb-red stem and then a white onion-like bulb. But a whole ramp (with bulb intact) is not a sustainably harvested ramp.
Ramps are very slow growing alliums and take 7-8 years to reach full harvestable maturity. When a patch of leeks is depleted, if it recovers, it will take nearly a decade to bounce back.
Currently the demand for ramps is the highest we have ever seen. The internet is partly to blame as it helps spread information about their culinary uses without also passing on the importance of conserving ramps through sustainable harvesting practices. And the once prolific wild leek is getting harder and harder to find.
Ramps on private land are managed by the owner of that land, but most ramps are harvested on public land, sometime illegally, or at least without permission (and then also without proper education about how to harvest). One forager takes a small amount and then another and another and another. At the end of a single season, foraging can deplete a patch of ramps to the point that it would take decades to return.
It’s not too late, however, to save the ramp for generations to come.
How do we do it? The way we pursue the conservation of any valuable natural resource:: HARVEST RAMPS SUSTAINABLY and when you purchase ramps, DEMAND SUSTAINABLY HARVESTED RAMPS.
Ramps can be harvested without taking the bulb, using a lateral slice with a slight downward angle rather than digging them (see video below). You get the slender leaf or leaves and a nice dense stem that can be pickled, chopped and roasted, or treated like asparagus wrapped in meat. No, you do not get a bulb, that’s the sacrifice here, but the rest of the plant is wonderful, rich in flavor and possibilities. AND, best of all, you can come back to the same patch and harvest pounds of leaves and stems year after year.
So farmers and foragers, educate your customers. Chefs and deli owners that source ramps, demand a product that has been sustainably harvested. Consumers, understand that if you purchase a whole ramp bulb, you are consuming a natural resource that is not being properly protected or conserved.
Below is a video. It shows how easy it is to harvest ramps sustainably. It’s short, less than 20 seconds long, and demonstrates how to cut at the base, just below the surface of the soil with a hori-hori garden knife.