This spring more than two million plants of wild leek or ramps will be harvested and consumed by individuals, ramp festivals, and especially the culinary industry. Ramps are one of the first harbingers of spring in the forest and for wild food enthusiasts a special treat. Recent demand and consumption of ramps has increased dramatically due to their new culinary cache creating threats to plant populations and disturbance to the forests in which they reside.
Ramps (Allium tricoccum and A.tricoccum var. burdickii) are members of the allium or onion family. These two species grow in the rich mesic woods in the eastern half of the United States from Canada and New England to Minnesota, Michigan, south to Missouri, and east to Tennessee and North Carolina and occasionally as far south as the mountains of Georgia. These woodland habitats tend to be populated by other fragile spring ephemerals such as Trilliums, Bloodroot, Dutchman’s Breeches, and many other notable spring wildflowers. Ramps grow in small to fairly large patches where they may be locally common and sometimes abundant. The leaves are deep green, the above ground leaf blade about five inches long, tapering to a thin reddish purple stalk (petiole), the remainder underground, whitish, and ending in small white elongated bulb up to inch in length . A. tricoccum var burdickii is similar with slightly smaller flowers (and therefore smaller seed production) and a white stem, although color is not a sure identifier of the species. They are reputed to be somewhat milder. The foliage of cultivated lily of the valley, superficially resembles ramps.
The entire plant smells garlic-like. Wild leeks posses a unique taste like a cross between a strong scallion, garlic, and leek with nuances not found elsewhere, hence their culinary appeal. Both the bulb and leaf can be eaten although the leaf has a somewhat more delicate flavor. The leaves tend to toughen later in the season. The bulbs can be consumed fresh and are quite potent. Like all spring ephemerals the foliage begins to die back as the weather becomes hotter, typically in late June or July.
The word ramps was imported to America by settlers from the British Isles from the Scottish word rampsor ramsh. Its usage dates at least to the of the 17th century, derived from the Old English word hramsa, and Proto-Germanic hramsaz and was used to describe “a species of Garlick” Allium ursinum, or ramsons, which look similar to the American ramps. These grow throughout northern Europe in very moist locations and were the favorites of bears (hence ursinum) and wild boars. The word Ramson dates to 1547. The Latin antecedent, circa 1000,is variously Ramusium, ramesan,or Ramuscium.
In Switzerland butter from Ramson grazing cows was a special delicacy. In Scotland hramsa is a mixture of Scottish Crowdie cheese, a soft cream cheese like cheese reputed to have been introduced by the Vikings, and double (heavy) cream flavored with chopped leaves of wild garlic. (ramsons) It is still produced today. The Scottish and English surname Ramsey, Ramsay or Ransom dating to the 14th century may be derived from this word, although sources vary about this attribution.
My first encounter with ramps took place when I was 19 on a preserve in Connecticut where I was conducting a vegetation inventory for a summer internship with the Nature Conservancy. For a couple of weeks I tramped along side Dean a master soil conservationist who reminded me of a younger Euell Gibbons, and his sidekick Ralph mapping soils. Soil guys always carry a small spade and once Dean spied the ramps he exclaimed “thare’s lunch boys”. For the remainder of the days together when were in the right habitat, every once and a while Dean and I would quell our hunger gnawing stomachs with a snack of raw ramp bulbs. Just brush off the earth and pop them in your mouth. Somehow Ralph always walked behind us inhaling the overpowering ramp fumes and complaining about the penetrating odors. We did tell Ralph that the only way to escape was to indulge. He resisted.