Spring: Wild Leeks (Ramps)

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Who:

Wild leeks, ramps

Allium tricoccum

What:

Wild perennial onion beloved by foragers and hip foodies alike; all parts are edible. Both the bulb and the leaves are excellent.

Threatened by overharvesting throughout its range.

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Where:

Found throughout Eastern North American from Georgia up into Canada. Generally prefers higher elevations, especially through the warmer part of its range, and often found close to streams or creeks. As an understory species it prefers mostly shade with dappled sunlight.

Sometimes carpets woodland hillsides where its populations still thrive.

When:

Ramps emerge from their winter slumber in March and April through most of their range, and only spend a few weeks aboveground before dying back to their bulbs. 

Leaves will disappear by May or possibly June at the latest, and if the plants are mature enough to go to seed, their flower stalks will emerge around this same time.

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Why:

Allium tricoccum is an important species to get to know as a forager of Eastern North America, if only for the lessons in ecology and sustainable harvesting that it imparts. 

It is one of few wild edible plants with a longstanding, ongoing presence in the market, and because of its status as a gourmet food, it commands an exceptionally high price among chefs in the know.

This has unfortunately resulted in the exploitation and overharvesting of a rather delicate woodland perennial that is simultaneously dwindling due to the disappearance of its habitat and the encroachment of invasive species.

All of this is further complicated by the fact that wild leeks are especially slow to go to seed for such a minute spring ephemeral: the average plant will not produce seeds until it’s at least seven years old, and even then it may not do so every year. To make matters worse, the seeds sometimes take several years to germinate.

Folks who’ve gotten to know populations of ramps over the years tell similar cautionary tales about having to travel further and further up the mountainside to find them; how long before none remain?

How:

If you choose to harvest from a patch of wild leeks, it is your personal responsibility to thoroughly and honestly assess the situation at hand to determine the impact that you will have on that population’s ability to persist indefinitely. 

You should err on the side of having no impact if you’re not confident in your ability to judge the relative health and abundance of the population.

That said, there are more and less sustainable ways to harvest. 

The most sustainable option is to harvest just one of the plant’s characteristic two leaves, leaving behind the second leaf and the bulb.

Traditionally, some indigenous peoples of North America harvest both leaves just below soil level, leaving the bulb behind to recover. You might cut a little further down the stem, into the bulb itself, but leaving the bottom third intact. All of this can exhaust individual plants over time to the point that they will eventually wither and die, so this route requires caution, and knowing the patch well enough to remember which plants need time to rest from year to year.

If you’re confident you’ve found an abundant, thriving population, you might consider digging up whole plants, bulb and all. This is the least sustainable option. In this case, exercise severe restraint and only harvest what you intend to use fresh. Leave behind the vast majority of the population, and be careful not to injure neighboring plants when digging.

In the kitchen, use wild leeks—whether leaf, bulb, or all—just as you would green onions. In most cases you’ll probably want to add them at the very last moment when cooking in order to preserve their unique flavors and aromas.

If you’re feeling creative or you have extra to spare, there are a number of unique uses to consider: you could add them to pickles or ferments; or create infused butter or oil for later use.

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Key characteristics:

  • one or two wide, flat, oval-shaped leaves terminating in (pink-red) stems down to a white bulb

  • distinct allium smell

  • usually growing in patches, in shaded woodlands

Lookalikes:

Lily of the valley,  C. majalis  -  H. Zell on Wikipedia

Lily of the valley, C. majalis - H. Zell on Wikipedia

Leaves bear a passing resemblance to the toxic Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis), but there are simple key differences to look out for:

  • Wild leeks grow from bulbs; Lily of the valley does not have a bulb

  • Wild leeks have one or two leaves with their own stems emerging from ground level; Lily of the valley has a single stem with multiple leaves whorled around the center

  • Wild leeks emerge early in spring; Lily of the valley comes out later in spring

  • Wild leeks have characteristic allium umbel flowers that (might) appear after their leaves die back early in summer; Lily of the valley has a flower stalk that emerges along with its first leaves, and it has many small bell-shaped flowers

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