As the local food movement has grown in popularity, an interesting subset of “foodies” have emerged that forage in nature for their dinner. Many native, wild plants are edible and these folks seek them out in our forests, prairies, and sometimes even our yards.
One plant that is often a target of early spring foraging activities in the forest is the wild ramp (Allium tricoccum). Often referred to as wild leeks, this plant is a cousin to the leeks (Allium porrum) we know from the grocery store. It is member of the Allium Family, which contains such American staples as onions, garlic and chives.
Ramps are one of the first green things to emerge in early spring. Right now, in our area, they have fully emerged and are mature for harvest over the next month or so. Historically, this first green of spring was much welcomed and celebrated, especially by early settlers who suffered through a long winter of stored root vegetables and other less perishable supplies. The nutritional value of wild ramps was often quite important as they offer the first available fresh supply of many vital nutrients such as Vitamin C. Early European settlers valued ramps as a “spring tonic” of sorts, with various claims to the medicinal properties of this wild forest plant.
Over time, traditions evolved around the annual early season gathering of ramps. Throughout the eastern United States, many annual spring ramps festivals are held, attracting tourists far and wide. Many of the communities that host actively advertise creating a fun and festive atmosphere at these events. Large volumes of ramps are consumed during festivals in various dishes from soups and salads, to pickled delicacies.
Ramps are highly prized by culinary enthusiasts for their unique onion-like taste, which includes buttery hints of garlic with a milder, sweet onion undertone. The distinctive and sought-after flavor has led to higher demand in restaurants that have begun serving seasonal dishes featuring ramps, which are marketed as a wild harvested, local food.
Since almost all ramps consumed at large festivals or restaurants are wild harvested, many ramp populations in the eastern US are experiencing a serious decline. The entire plant is edible and is often harvested, leaving no means of reproduction if the whole population is taken. Further compounding the problem is the fact that wild ramp populations are very slow to recover from harvesting and take several years to establish from scratch. They typically grow in large clumps in the wild, since much of the growth in ramp populations is attributed to bulb division, which is a very slow process. Reproduction from seed is limited as well since it takes more than five years of growth for wild ramps to become reproductive and produce viable seed. Seed survival rates are noted to be relatively low in uncultivated settings leaving wild populations dependent on bulb division.
With very few established, commercial ramp growers in the US, there is a growing need for consistent supplies of wild ramps to meet the current demand in the eastern US. This has led to focused conservation efforts in many states as wild ramps have certainly become a species of concern in the eastern US and Canada. They are listed as threatened in New York State. Guidelines have been developed for sustainable harvesting of ramps and cultivation of wild populations is encouraged in many areas. In fact, due to recent demands, ramps have become a cash crop for small woodland owners that are savvy enough to establish and sustainably harvest their own ramp populations.
In Illinois, wild ramps are somewhat common statewide and are not listed as threatened or endangered. However, they prefer high-quality forest remnants which are certainly in limited supply. In the Chicagoland region, there is growing problem with poaching to meet current demand. Ramp populations are experiencing sharp declines leading to increase efforts to curtail illegal harvest on public lands.
Ramps are an early spring delicacy that provide an excellent return on some needed outdoor activity this time of year. It can be quite enjoyable to harvest this wild, local food source, but please be aware that harvesting is prohibited in many public natural areas. If you do find a harvestable population, be sure to educate yourself on sustainable harvesting practices to ensure that our state’s ramp population remains stable.