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The sustainability of harvesting ramps

This year well over 2 million plants of ramps will be harvested for culinary purposes. 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.

Since that time I have occasionally dug a few ramps in the spring, savoring their unique subtle flavor when cooked. In recent years I became concerned when I noticed how much media coverage they were getting, how many restaurants were serving them, and food stores selling them. This was no longer the occasional expert forager gathering a few ramps for a meal or two, rather the equivalent of hundreds of people out digging in a patch of ramps. I knew enough about the ecology and botany of the rich woods in which ramps grow to know this was not a good trend.

Commercial foraged samples I saw showed me that they were being harvested carelessly—baby and immature ramps were being dug right along with mature plants. In the Berkshires where I live wild food specialist Russ Cohen noticed whole patches being decimated.

This spring I started doing some research and what learned was worse than I had expected. If you have ever dug ramps you know that sometimes they are quite prolific,yet how long would it take to harm the population?  Our best example in the United States is ginseng. Botanists believe ginseng was just as common as ramps is today. Yet ginseng is now virtually extinct from many woods, and generally scarce or rare today.  Ramps like ginseng tend to grow in some of our nicest and richest eastern woodlands, those populated by other fragile spring flowers such as Trilliums, Bloodroot, Mayapple, Blue and Black Cohosh and many others. Unfortunately we have proved as humans that we are quite capable of over utilizing  our natural resources for our own designs with too little understanding for the consequences of our actions.  Think buffalo or passenger pigeons.

In talking to many botanists who have looked carefully at ramps and woodland plants there is a concern about the future of ramps due to its new found culinary cache. Harvesting was banned in Smokey Mountain National Park about ten years ago due to field studies showing that the long time traditional local harvesting practices were having a major effect upon ramp populations. It was learned that as much as 90% of some patches had been harvested, which was estimated to take 100 years to recover. Patches wherein 25% of the population was harvested were estimated to require 10 years to recover.  Even a harvest of only 5% might take 2 years.

Anecdotal information reveals that many old time harvesters believe that patches have been greatly diminished in the last decade, undoubtedly due to this new interest in wild ramps.

Amongst the  concerns voiced by botanists are the reduction of the ability of the plants to reproduce because of over harvesting, disturbance of the woodland habitat by digging and trampling, thus increasing the ability of invasive plants to spread. Invasive plants can compromise native habitats and individual plant populations through over competition, releasing (allelopathic) chemicals into the soil and interfering with beneficial mycorrhizal (plant root-fungi) relationships,.  Other factors which may be creating a perfect storm for ramps are climate change, lumbering and over grazing.

Studies in Quebec led to ban on commercial harvesting for the entire province, with only small amounts allowed to be dug for personal use.  Three states now have ramps listed as plants of special concern. While they can be cultivated it takes about 7 years to produce a mature plant. Currently the ramps on the commercial market are all dug.

If there is such a thing as a sustainable harvest of ramps, no one currently knows what that number is. Clearly it is under 5%.

An alternative to destroying the whole plant is utilizing the leaves. For flavor the leaves are excellent and keep refrigerated for several weeks.  Leaf harvest is currently being studied. It is not clear how sustainable that practice is. I think it’s possible if not more than 20% of a patch was harvested of leaves each year that  this might be sustainable. This is only a guess.

My request and hope is that chefs and food purveyors will help to reverse this recent trend. The contemporary mass harvesting of a entire food plant like ramps in the United States may be unprecedented.  Every botanist I spoke with was very concerned about the current trajectory.  If you must use ramps than ask your suppliers to provide you with leaves. There really is no such thing as sustainably harvested bulbs at this point.

Could we create system for regulation, or certification of sustainable or farm raised ramps? It is possible, and it raises far more questions than can be answered in the near term.

All of us need to keep asking the important questions about our food and it’s origins. Curiosity will lead us to inquire about what needs to be learned, while caring will lead us to want to do the right thing in the best way, culminating in kindness—the action of caring. As we think about the common good, what works for the sake of the whole, it seems evident to me that "mining ramps" is not creating a net contribution.

I’m happy to talk with anyone about this topic. If you want to read my full article or get a copy of the Ramps Action Alert please go to http://botanicalposters.com/blog/ .


Lawrence Davis-Hollander is an ethnobotanist, former director and founder of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, author of Tomato: A Fresh from the Vine Cookbook, and  president of botanicalposters.com, the artwork of his wife Margo. His blogs can be found on http://botanicalposters.com/blog, http://blogs.grit.com/blogs and http://simpledailyrecipes.com