Ramps, also known as wild garlic or wild leeks, specifically Allium triccocum, and Allium burdickii where I live, are one of Nature’s greatest (and most delicious) 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) and Allium victorialis (victory onion harvested by the Vikings that’s made a home in Russia) as well as others, are enjoyed around the world. Anyway you cut it, ramps and wild onions are one of your best friends in the kitchen, 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.
“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.”
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.
How much harvesting is sustainable?
I see a lot of speculation on this. Some people say one leaf per colony. Some say remove one plant, bulb and all from every three colonies, or some other random, arbitrary number they’ve come up with.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a conservationist, but the fact is people are going to harvest ramps, bulbs and all from public and private land whether we like it or not, and no one is going to walk around taking a single leaf here and there when they’re in a field of ramps as far as the eyes can see, and more importantly, when no one else is watching.
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:
- Know your local laws. Digging ramp bulbs on public land in the United States is Illegal in most places.
- Harvest from large stands where the ramps seem to go on forever. Seeing a couple ramps here and there doesn’t mean it’s a “patch”.
- Leave whole colonies of ramps in tact as much as possible–consider taking 20% or less from each colony you disturb.
- Don’t concentrated your harvest in one area—spread out, give the plants some room to breathe, this will allow the ramps to spread and fill back in the spots naturally.
- Piggy backing on the previous note, if you find yourself in a public area where others have been harvesting, move to another untouched spot.
- If you harvest bulbs, come 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? Ramp colonies with their leaves cut will often 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.
That being said, I do harvest ramp bulbs when I please, but I’m harvesting them from private land, where I have permission. It is totally fine to dig ramp bulbs to your hearts content on your own property, or property where you have permission to dig.
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 the lowest heat, or in front of a fan, and store in a cool-dry place until they’re ready to plant the next spring. You can also smush them into the ground in the late summer or fall when they would fall naturally.
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.
Other Edible Parts: Seeds, Flowers, and Scapes
Ramps have more than just bulbs and leaves. These additional parts are not mentioned by many other authors, and are also sustainable things to harvest, and a good reason to come check on your ramp patch to get other things later in the season like mushrooms.
Scapes will begin to come up after the leaves have died back, a good way to know when to look for them is when other alliums in your area like garlic have started to form their scapes. In Minnesota and Wisconsin where I live and hunt, this is in mid June.
Unripe Green Seeds
Unripe green ramp seeds are something not a lot of people talk about, but they can be gathered easily without a shovel, and have the same strong rampy flavor you know and love.
Ramp flowers make a delicious addition to just about anything, and will keep in the fridge for a week or more. keep in mind if you remove the flowers that they won’t get pollinated, and from there, will not make seeds.
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.
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.
Ramp Leaf Butter
- Food processor
- 2 oz 2 cups lightly packed ramp or other onion leaves
- 8 oz 2 sticks salted butter
- 1/2 tablespoon cold water
- A few cracks of the peppermill
- 1/2 Tablespoon chilled lemon juice or water plus a few scrapes of lemon zest, optional
- Cut the butter into tablespoon sized pieces and bring to room temperature.
- Bring a pot of water to a boil and blanch HALF of the ramp leaves for 5 seconds, just until wilted, then refresh in cold water. Alternately, for a stronger flavor, steam the ramp leaves for a few seconds until just wilted.
- Squeeze the leaves dry, then mince fine on a cutting board with the fresh ramp leaves.
- In the bowl of a food processor pulse the ramp leaf mash to smooth it out a bit, then gradually add the butter pieces 1 chunk at a time, along with the water, processing to make a smooth paste (it may take some time if your butter is cold-just be patient) continuing to process until the butter is light green and fluffy-make sure to watch the video as this is easier seen than explained.
- If the butter, or ambient temperature of the kitchen is very cold, add a spoonful or two of boiling water to help the mixture move in the food processor.
- Once the butter is emulsified, fluffy and brilliant green, add the pepper, and drizzle in the lemon juice, processing for a few seconds to lighten it. Spread the butter onto a piece of parchment and refrigerate, or cut into portions and freeze.
- The butter will keep for a week in the fridge, and a couple months in the freezer. I prefer to vacuum seal it for the best long-term storage.