Springtime is when the Earth awakens from its long winter slumber, filling farmers market stands with the first crops of peas, garlic scapes, and, in some places, ramps. With their jewel-like bulbs and delicate leaves, ramps look a little like baby leeks, and boast a garlicky, onion-y flavor that's rounded out with a touch of sweetness. Unfortunately, these popular vegetables have been rampaged.
Quebec offers a cautionary example: In 1995, Quebec made it illegal to sell ramps, as authorities tried to curtail over-harvesting, which had led the province to include them on its list of threatened species. Yet demand for ramps was high enough that a lucrative black market emerged. Despite concerns about the sustainability of harvesting ramps, the popularity of the wild allium has only grown, with interest peaking every spring.
"The commodification of this food source has led to the decline of its presence in our ecosystem," says Candace Thompson, an artist, activist, and founder of The Collaborative Urban Resilience Banquet (CURB). The environmental toll has been exacerbated by seemingly widespread ignorance of how to properly harvest ramps in a way that allows the plant population to thrive. Here, then, is an overview of essential ramp botany, with a particular emphasis on how to approach harvesting ramps with sustainability in mind.
What Are Ramps?
Allium tricoccum—known as ramps, wild leek or wild garlic, or, to the Ojibwa people, shika’ko—is endemic to North America. Ramps are in the family of amaryllidaceae, which consists of bulbous perennials like lilies, narcissus, and shallots.
Ramps are found in deciduous forests and grow best on north-facing slopes in moist soil. They need lots of sun early in their season, but as their leaves die and they start to produce tiny white or purple flowers, they require more shade. In North America, ramps grow as far west as Minnesota and Missouri; and from Canada down through the Appalachian mountain region, where ramp dinners are a longstanding tradition.
Understanding the ramp lifecycle is crucial to understanding how best to harvest the plant. In the Northern hemisphere, ramps lie dormant from late October to late March. Just as the snow begins to melt, the plant’s first few leaves emerge, and by May its leaves have fully formed and fanned out, at which point the plant is usually harvested. From the months of June through late August, the plant’s leaves fall back and tiny white or purple blossoms grow from its shoots. Come late September, its seeds disseminate. The seeds take a full six to 18 months to germinate, but it takes each plant five to seven years to produce seeds, according to the USDA.
Ramps are a valuable product because of the high market price they command—often around $5 per bunch or $20 per pound—but because of their long germination and the degree to which their growth is dependent on seasonal atmospheric conditions, they're typically foraged, not cultivated. However, they’re often foraged improperly, with foragers plucking the entire plant, bulb and all, from the ground, which halts its life cycle and prevents the species from repopulating.
How to Harvest Ramps Sustainably
Every March brings a new crop of articles discussing the many ways that ramps can be used. Almost every single one of these articles features a photo of ramps with the bulb intact, and some of them even have roots attached. While the whole ramp is a beautiful sight, the normalization of this image has encouraged improper harvesting techniques.
Improperly harvested ramps. [Photograph: Vicky Wasik]
Pulling the entire ramp out of the ground, including the root, causes permanent damage to the plant. Many people pull whole clumps out of the ground, or they will harvest from the same patch year after year. This has become common practice, and should stop. A study by Janet H. Rock, Brian Beckage, and Louis J. Gross published by Elsevier in 2004 recommends a 10% harvest once every 10 years would, on average, be a sustainable level of harvest for ramps.
Neftali Duran of the I-collective, an autonomous group of Indigenous chefs, activists, and herbalists, suggests foragers instead "harvest only the tops of the plants, never the roots, and from the middle of clumps so that the population stays strong. This is not just responsible harvesting, but also a respectful way of communing with other species that rely on ramps in early spring."
While foraging, use your best judgement whenever you come across a patch of ramps. If it looks thin, move on. When approaching thick, healthy patches of ramps, as Duran explained: With a small sharp knife, cut leaves from the center of clusters of ramp plants, and never pull up their roots.
The rise in popularity of ramps offers an opportunity to practice sustainable ways of cultivating and harvesting ramps. "Foraging can be an educational and spiritual tool and can help people find agency in an opaque, extractive food system. Practically speaking, foraging can help us steward ecosystems into healthier and more vibrant places," Thompson says. She goes on to explain that in order to create resiliency in our food system we need to promote plant diversity.
Practiced holistically, foraging, defined as the act of finding wild food sources, is a way to grow resilient and diverse ecosystems outside of the farming industry. One of the main tenets in foraging is that when you consume wild invasive species, you make space for endemic species to come back, which, in turn, restores ecosystems. Foraging has existed for much of our history, and it has the propensity to sustain cultures and identities of urban populations who might not have commercial access to cultural foods, all the while supporting the environment.
High in vitamins A and C and many minerals, ramps are quite versatile. If you do find yourself with responsibly sourced ramps, your options are extensive. They can be pickled or made into vinegars or seasoned salts to preserve their flavor, or they can be used in all sorts of dishes, from pasta and pizza to soups and stir-fries. You can check out our collection of ramp recipes right here.
For many, ramps are so much more than food. The Ojibwa, Cherokee, Iroquois, and Potawatomi tribes have long believed in the sacred and medicinal properties of this plant, and documented its importances as one of the first to provide them with nutrients after long hard winters, according to Native American Ethnobotany. Ramps continue to sustain Indigenous people and communities across Appalachia today.
"A codified foraging practice could do a lot for land stewardship if it was imbued with an inherent sense of reciprocity with the natural world," notes Thompson. Ramps may be delicious, but they're only one of the many forage-able plant species in our ecosystem. Being a conscientious eater means not always reaching for an overharvested plant like the ramp. In other words: Practice moderation, and take the time to educate yourself about the environmental concerns and dynamics of the area you're foraging in.