What is a Ramp?
What exactly IS a “ramp”? Put simply it’s a wild leek, allium tricoccum. Ramps are far smaller than the leeks we see in the store consisting of a bulb ranging from downright tiny to just short of the size of a marble, a stem section perhaps 2 inches long and 2 flat leaves 6 to 8 inches long on average and a bit under an inch wide.
These Are Not Ramps
These are wild chives or garlic chives. Delicious in their own way, but definitely not ramps.
Location Location Location
Ramps are notoriously difficult to cultivate and thus far have eluded attempts to do so at a commercially viable level. So where does one get them? The time honored tradition of foraging. They like wet sandy loam soil generally found along the banks of small streams and creeks in forested Appalachian valleys.
Ramps are EXTREMELY seasonal and very perishable. The prime season is in the springtime before the canopy of the trees really leafs out starving them for light. They do need it a bit shady so the naked trees before full blown summer provide just enough protection from direct sunlight. Once the leaves on the trees bud out and spread the ramps will get yellowish and start dying back but continue to grow to maturity and seed out. The seeds will replenish the ramp field as well as the bulbs regrowing and spreading.
Locating a ramp field can be tricky and often requires blind dumb luck. They do grow in small clumps and in onesies and twoisies around the Appalachian forests for those with the time to hunt for them like mushrooms but the real objective is to locate large fields of them for efficient foraging.
Foragers tend to be secretive to protect their found ramp fields the same as foragers of mushrooms, especially morels. Over-foraging can be a substantial problem for ramp foragers in many areas. Any place they grow well that is easily accessible will tend to be over-foraged so foragers need to plan to get off the beaten path and do some hiking. One must also be prepared to haul the “take” on one’s back from such remote areas if any quantity is desired. This intensity of labor combined with the special knowledge (and luck) required to find them is a major reason ramps can be sold to urban chefs for prices exceeding $15 per pound.
Once you’ve located ramps the next step is getting them out of the ground without damaging them. We use a military entrenching tool (a folding shovel). Lock it into the fully open position like a conventional shovel. Place the tip of the blade a few inches from the individual ramp or preferably clump of ramps and push it straight down into the ground deep enough to extend below the depth of the bulbs and lever up the ramps to loosen them. With the clump of soil loosened use your hands to wiggle the ramps free of the dirt. If the soil is loose and sandy enough they may root as much as 8 inches deep and their roots will be tangled together so it will take a little effort to extricate them intact.
Ramps have become so popular that they are in peril of being over harvested in many areas. In Quebec, foraging for ramps for commercial purposes was banned way back in 1995. In 2004, parts of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee banned the harvest of ramps after a study found the only way to prevent damage to the patch was to harvest less than 10 percent each year.
Where we harvest ramps, (a state secret) there are plenty of ramps to go around. There are acres of them. But we selectively pick and choose where we dig, never in the same area each year. We could dig for years and not make a dent in these ramp beds. We also are growing ramps on our property and have just started the great Growing-Ramps-From-Seed Experiment.
What to do with these lovely spring leeks? More posts to come, we’ve only just begun!