How to Sustainably Harvest Ramps

How to Sustainably Harvest Ramps

It’s April. If you’ve noticed the world seeming louder it’s not just spring thaw and songbirds, it’s also millions of people arguing about ramps. These sweet little wild leeks that never make a peep sure do cause people to get rowdy. I’m not going to weigh in on one side of the great ramp debate or the other and add to the noise, but I thought I’d tell you what it looks like from here, on the fence, with a decent view in all directions.

Should You Dig Up Ramps? Ramps or wild leeks (Allium tricoccum) are the darlings of spring foraging, and for good reason—with their fragrant leaves and pungent bulbs, they’re the most tempting, lively flavor that one could imagine after a long winter. It might be to their detriment if we can’t control ourselves, though that’s up for lively debate.

Ramps are native to the whole eastern half of North America and up into Canada, but in varying degrees of abundance. They exist here in Maine, but only in small pockets, while next door in New Hampshire they’re even more sparse, and just beyond that, in the hills of Vermont, you can walk for miles through a dense, green carpet of ramps each spring. In Appalachia and parts of the Midwest, they’re so common that some call them a staple crop. Annual festivals are held in their honor, and whole communities have come together to get their fix for generations, with no reported ill effect to ramp vigor. While in New York, where ramp populations were historically robust, we’re seeing declines from overharvesting, likely due to commercial demand. All of this to say, our relationship with ramps is situational, and it should be.

They grow slowly, and we eat quickly, so there’s a uniquely acute awareness we need to keep in order to have a healthy relationship with them. It takes about seven years for a ramp to reach full maturity from seed, and many resources say that harvesting 25% is sustainable, while studies from the University of Tennessee found that the mean recovery time from a 25% harvest would be approximately 22 years. It’s more than safe to assume that you aren't the only person collecting from “your” ramp patch, so you can multiply that “sustainable” 25% by however many people think it's "their" patch, too.

While we have a long history with ramps, only recently have people begun monitoring populations and compiling data, so it’s hard to get a clear read on what our impacts and best practices actually are. I recently learned that Sam Thayer, our nation’s treasured wild food expert, has chosen to take on this task of compiling the data that he’s been collecting for years and making it available to us by way of a forthcoming documentary about ramps. Keep your eyes peeled for that, it’ll likely answer most of our burning questions.

While current studies might sound dismal, most of them are equating “harvest” only with the digging of the whole plant, root and all, when that is not our only option. Historically, ramps have been harvested by indigenous people by either snapping off the bulb above the roots, leaving them in the ground to produce another plant, or by taking no bulb at all, but taking one leaf from each plant. Both of these methods have been time-tested and seem to have sustainable results.

Most times, there’s really no reason to dig the whole plant with the roots, as the leaves have just as much flavor, they’re much tidier to collect, they leave the plant in place to reproduce, and you wouldn’t be eating the roots anyways. I also learned from botanist, Arthur Haines, that the lipids in the bulbs readily absorb whatever toxins are present in the soil, making site consideration especially pertinent.

There are times, however, when collecting bulbs (the bulbous base of the plant) is perfectly welcomed. In places where ramps are historically and currently thriving, where you or your community have observed a patch continuing to thrive through many years, so much so that the ramps are growing tightly together and may benefit from a little thinning. In these cases, digging some whole plants seems appropriate, especially when done later in the season when the bulbs are at their plumpest and the seeds are ripe for planting as you disturb the soil with your digging.

To dig or not to dig is not a question that can be answered for everyone collectively. But it should be asked and answered by all of us, individually, every year, with the health of the ramps as our primary concern. With game animals, we have wildlife biologists to monitor population health and set our hunting regulations, but with wild plants, it’s up to us as foragers and consumers to make these decisions. Personally, because ramps aren’t super abundant in Maine, I choose to only take a leaf per plant. I taught a class in Vermont last year for landowners who had acres of mature ramp fields as far as the eye could see. They had owned the land for a long time and took only a modest harvest each spring for their own personal use. Here, I felt digging was welcomed, so I dug, not to eat, but to plant.

How to Grow Ramps Growing ramps is easy, albeit slow. As I said, from seed, they take seven years to mature, but they also transplant fairly well, so I plant a new round of bulbs every year and broadcast seeds in between and around the edges to fill in and expand the patch with staggered age groups. I’m lucky enough to have something akin to their preferred habitat of hardwood forest with constantly damp soil, but you can grow them in your vegetable garden, flower beds, or around the edges of your yard as long as you have soil that never dries out. They are most often found in the wild with sugar maple, beech, yellow birch, basswood, elm, and here in Maine I also see them with silver maple, red maple, and even red oak, almost always in fertile floodplains or rocky, mesic, North-facing slopes.

Do your best to mimic these conditions, but I’ve seen ramps planted in your typical front yard, along a chainlink fence underneath a forsythia and they will do just fine. If you do have some hardwood forest of your own, you can plant them out in patches as they’d grow naturally, or, to monitor them more closely, use a method like the USDA National Agroforestry Center—Extension of Forest Farming does here in this really helpful video, "Planting Ramps in the Forest".

When looking for seeds or bulbs for planting, or eating for that matter, vet your sources. Talk to the seller directly, ask them questions about their practices, turn your bullshit detector up high. If they’re selling for food, and are offering plants with the roots attached, ask them why. If you choose to buy them, plant those roots. If they’re wild-harvesting, make sure they’re doing it legally and thoughtfully. Be skeptical of the lowest price, and the highest. Don’t assume the seller was diligent in their identification.

There are a handful of plants that are often confused with ramps, as they look similar to the untrained eye, and they grow in the same places at the same time as ramps. Whether foraging or purchasing, keep a keen eye out for Lily-of-the-Valley, False Hellebore, and Canada Mayflower, the latter being fairly benign, but the first two will land you in the hospital or worse.

Savor the Flavor The funny thing about all of this overharvesting is that ramps are so flavorful, a little goes such a long way that should you be lucky enough to have even a handful of ramp leaves. And there are ways to preserve that flavor to use all year.

While I do like to add whole leaves to a few stir-frys, spring vegetable frittatas, maybe a grilled cheese, and a batch of kimchi, I’ll take the rest of my leaves and stretch them into pungent condiments and accoutrements to bring the potency of ramps with me into the dull days of winter. Fermented ramp hot sauce is a favorite, along with pesto, compound butter, infused oil, and this year, I’m really excited to try Alan Bergo’s ramp leaf soy sauce.

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