Ramps, Allium tricoccum, are species of wild onion. They are delicious and nutritious and have a very important place in the cultural and culinary history of the southern Appalachians. Native Americans such as the Cherokee ate the plant and used it medicinally for a variety of purposes, including as a spring tonic. Early European settlers continued to eat and use ramps medicinally.
Ramps provide many nutrients and minerals and historically helped people revitalize themselves after a long winter without many greens or vegetables. Many people, such as myself, still await the early spring arrival of ramps. Nowadays restaurants include ramps on their menus and there are a variety of ramp festivals and events that celebrate ramps. This is particularly true in the southern Appalachian Mountains, where there are multiple large ramp festivals in locations such as Haywood County NC as well as Polk Co. Tenn., that even include events such as ramp eating competitions.
Ramps are in the same genus, Allium, as cultivated garlic and onions. They are sometimes known as ramson, wild garlic, wood leek, or wild leek. They grow naturally in deciduous (hardwood) forests from northern Georgia along the Appalachian Mountains to southeastern Canada. The distribution of ramps is shrinking, but historically their densest populations were located here in the southeast Appalachian Mountains.
Ramps grow in rich, humid soils often in or near forested riparian zones, or the area close to streams and rivers, in deep cove forests. Many plants and animals depend on riparian zones. Healthy riparian zones are also incredibly important as they protect waterways from sediment and other pollutants. The rich type of soil that ramps grow best in naturally takes hundreds to thousands of years to form.
Ramps often grow close to other spring plants and wildflowers that also depend on specific ecosystems and microclimates that exist in our forests such as blue cohosh, bloodroot, Dutchman’s breeches, and trout lily.
Ramps are perennials that, like other members of the onion family, grow from bulbs. Ramps grow in close groups that are strongly rooted below the surface of the soil. The leaves are smooth and light green (the perfect color for early spring), with deep purple tinges toward the bottom of the stem.
Like many other early emerging plants, ramps are considered spring ephemerals. This is because the leaves only exist for a few short weeks after emerging in early spring before turning yellow and dying back. This adaption allows the ramps to use the early spring sunlight to grow, and store energy in the root system and bulbs before the trees leaf out and shade the forest floor where the ramps live.
Ramps often grow from a cluster of two to six bulbs. The bulbs of ramps are white. Ramps will spend several years in a cycle of emerging in early spring, growing, storing energy, and dying back in early summer before flowering. Once the ramp reaches maturity and it is time to flower, the ramp will send up a flowering stem. Only one flowering stem grows from each bulb cluster. Unlike the leaves, the flowering stem does not die back after spring, but remains into summer when flowering occurs. From the flowering stem, ramps form small clusters of creamy white flowers. The fertilized flowers produce small green pods that contain small, round, shiny seeds (like domesticated onion seeds).
Once the ramp seed drops to the ground, it takes over a year to germinate. The seed requires cold after a period of warmth for the seed to germinate, something that is known as cold stratification. This means the ramp seed often needs an entire summer following the year it was made (for a sufficient warm period), then the following winter to “wake” the seed before germination.
Cold stratification is common for different seeds, such as milkweed, acorns, and many others. Ramps are extremely slow to reproduce. The whole lifecycle of just one ramp plant takes five to seven years, but can be longer, while an entire patch of ramps often takes more than twenty years to establish itself.
Because of the slow life cycle and high demand for ramps they are currently being overharvested and are disappearing at a quick rate in many areas. If this continues there will not be any left for future generations to enjoy. In Quebec, ramps are threatened. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies ramps as "special concern" in Maine, Rhode Island, and Tennessee. The USDA also classifies ramps as “commercially exploited” in Tennessee.
Many ramps that are harvested are sold to restaurants in cities far away, but this does not mean we can’t play our part if harvesting ramps for ourselves. If you do choose to collect ramps, please consider harvesting them sustainably. They can be harvested in a manner that does not kill the plant. This is done by cutting the top part off with a sharp knife or shears and leaving the bottom of the bulb and roots instead of digging the whole plant up. You will not lose much of your harvest be doing this, and the leaves and stem are arguably the tastiest part of the plant.
If possible, leave one leaf on every plant harvested and do not harvest more than a quarter of the patch if you plan on harvesting it again. When harvesting ramps be careful of the highly poisonous look-alike, Lily of the Valley. It is not surprising that they are look-alikes, given that onions are in the lily family. Before going out, make sure you are familiar with both plants, and any other poisonous plants in your area.
The best way to tell the difference is by smelling. Ramps have a distinct onion-garlic smell, Lily of the Valley does not. When checking, make sure your fingers do not already smell like ramps or you may trick yourself! If you have patience, you can also grow ramps in your garden.
To many, ramps still signal the beginning of spring. I always look forward to the spring activity of collecting ramps, and of the pungent, yet fresh and delicious smell and taste of ramps. I hope we can preserve them so future generations can also continue to enjoy this spring tradition for years to come.
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