Ramps, also known as wild garlic or wild leeks, specifically Allium triccocum, and Allium burdickii where I live, are one of Natures greatest gifts to foragers. They’re only one/two of many different types of wild alliums you could find though, and their cousins like Allium triquetrum (3-cornered leek) and Allium ursinum (bear garlic) as well as many others are enjoyed around the world. Anyway you cut it, ramps and wild onions are a cooks best friend, and people have been harvesting and enjoying them for millennia.
Ramps are special in that, like a number of other very early spring plants, they’re ephemerals, meaning that they come up early in the spring, their leaves maturing before the trees form their leaves, which will eventually shade them out, restricting their sunlight and their means of harnessing energy. After the tree leaves fill out, around late May where I live, the ramp leaves will wilt and fall back, and it will appear that they’re completely gone–but they’re not. In mid summer, ramps shoot up their flower stalks, which will give ramp scapes, eventually flowers, and finally, seeds.
Here’s the deal. If you dig up a ramp, you kill the plant, and it takes years for ramps to grow and mature. In patches on private land, it isn’t really a big deal to dig a few ramp bulbs here and there, but in a place like public land, where it’s illegal to dig wild plants, they can easily be over-harvested since multiple people will be hitting the same patch. Now, of course, ramps and other wild onions have been harvested for a very long time, including digging up the bulbs, but most of the people doing that had a much deeper relationship with nature than we do today, and a much more comprehensive knowledge and understanding of how to encourage their wild onion patches to grow and flourish despite harvesting bulbs.
Ramps can, and will take some harvesting of their bulbs, and some people, like my friend Sam Thayer, are doing studies to figure out what the long-term impacts of harvesting are, exactly how many ramps a certain patch of land can sustainably produce, and what the proper way to go about doing it is from a scientific point of view is. Until those studies are published though, here’s some sustainable harvesting tips:
Sustainable Harvesting tips
- Digging ramp bulbs on public land in the United States is Illegal.
- Leave whole colonies of ramps in tact as much as possible–consider taking 20% or less from each colony you disturb
- Don’t harvest from concentrated areas–spread out, give the plants some room to breathe
- If you harvest bulbs, consider coming back during the late summer to gather seeds to spread in the patch. Help the plants that give you food.
- Plant ramps in your yard or garden to grow your own patch (see below)
Leaves: The Most Sustainable Harvest
When I’m going out to pick ramps, most of the time I’m not bringing a shovel, I’m bringing a scissors. Why? Plenty of reasons. First, I like the ramps in my patch to come back every year–and cutting leaves, while it will rob them of some sunlight and energy, is a far cry from digging the plant. Ramp colonies with their leaves cut will still make flower stalks that make seeds and reproduce, ramps that get dug up, won’t. Secondly, it’s just easier. Ramps don’t want to come out of the ground–digging them is hard work, as anyone whose done it can tell you.
If you harvest only ramp leaves, there’s no digging, no hours of cleaning and trimming, and, you can feel good knowing that your patch will be there the next year, and years to come, so that you can share your delicious onions with your friends and family.
Plant your own Ramp Patch!
As a perennial, Ramps can be planted into a shady area, and will come up year after year for you. They’re a wonderful addition to a native-lawn/food forest. The only catch is that it takes time–a long time. Growing and tending your own ramp patch will definitely give you an appreciation for how long it takes them to grow. As a bonus, if you have a place to go and harvest ramps, the small ramps in your yard, although they’ll likely be a little early, will be a good barometer for when you should go out and pick.
As far as how to plant your own ramp patch–you have a couple options. Here’s a quick breakdown.
Planting Via Seed
Seeds will take the longest, but they’re also relatively easy to find, and plant–requiring little input on your part. Go to your ramp patch in the late summer, after the flowers have formed, and find the seed heads. Shake the little black seeds into a container, and bring them with you to plant the next year. Make sure to toss some seeds around while you’re harvesting in the patch to thank the ramps, too. Dry the seeds in a dehydrator on low heat, or in front of a fan, and store in a cool-dry place until they’re ready to plant the next spring.
The easiest method. Go to a coop, farmers market, or your favorite ramp patch, dig some up, leaving as many of the roots attached as possible, and plant them in a shady spot in your yard. That’s it. Plant more than you think you will want, since you’re trying to establish a large colony if you want to harvest anything other than leaves.
Planting cut roots
The rumors are true. With ramps you dig or buy, you can take the cut roots and plant them directly in a shady spot and they can grow. The operative word in this experiment though, is “can”. Ramps can grow from cut roots, but it doesn’t mean that you’ll have a great success rate. Used in combination with seeds and transplants though, you’ll have your own ramp patch in no time.
First, fill a large sink with cold water–better yet, a bucket outside, since dirt can and will clog your sink. Take your ramps and set them out on towels or something to cool, as they have probably been in your car in bags or something and might be a bit warm if you have just picked them from the wild. Using a paring knife, cut off just the root end of each ramp, leaving as much of the oniony bulb on them as possible.
Also inspect each of the leaves to make sure there are no yellowed or slimy parts, you want to trim those off. Now wash the ramps thoroughly in the cold water, then dry. Next, trim the leaves off of each ramp where the green stem turns into oniony bulb and put the leaves into a paper bag or other container with a small moist towel or paper towel (this will keep them fresh) and store them in your fridge. Save the little bulbs for eating fresh, cooking, pickling, etc.
Other Edible Parts: Seeds, Flowers, and Scapes
What just about none talks about, is that ramps have more than just bulbs and leaves. Ramp scapes, flowers, and seeds are all delicious, and pack concentrated onion flavor. They’re also sustainable things to harvest, and a good reason to come check on your ramp patch to get other things–like mushroooms.
Once you get yourself some ramps, you need to know some handy ways to process, store, and preserve them. Drying and dehydrating is one of the best ways to store the leaves, and pickling is probably my favorite way to store the bulbs. There’s also different recipes, along the lines of pickling, like fermenting and shelf-stable sauces like my famous ramp sriracha-style sauce that you can use. There’s a whole world of oniony goodness to explore.