Monday, April 30, 2012

Foraging: Identifying and Sustainably Harvesting Ramps

Identification difficulty level: Novice

Allium tricoccum, called sometimes wild leeks, spring onions, wood leeks, or ramson, but most commonly known as the ramp or Ramps, are one of the most sought after wild foods.

Recently "discovered" by the gourmet world, Martha Stewart, the New York Times, the Food Network, and more have just learned what foragers and people of the Appalachian mountains have known for generations. . .that Ramps are the delicacy of the onion family! 

Ramps are actually very easy to ID, and, in the Northeast of the US, or mountainous regions anywhere in the East, they are pretty easy to find.

Instead of going to Whole Foods or another high-end market, and paying up to $14.99 a pound for wilted specimens trucked across the continent, try taking a walk through any shady hardwood forest. Ramps like rich, moist soil, and thus are frequently found in shady patches in low-lying areas. Avoid marshes or swamps, as they cannot grow in standing water. Some guides say ramps like sandy soil, but personally, I have never found them there, so I guess it must be regional. I have found ramps in CT, VT, NJ and NY. 

Ramps are only found for a brief while in the Spring. In the Northeast, there time is usually between mid-April and mid-May, though with the warm weather we have had for the last few years, the season seems to have moved up at least a week. Once the trees fully leaf out, ramps are frequently cut off from the sun and their leaves die. They need to gather enough energy to store in their bulb to seed and sustain themselves throughout the winter.
Important identification tip: thin, translucent leaves.
In the light, they are like stained glass

According to the USDA, ramps are listed as “special concern, commercially exploited”. In Quebec commercial harvesting is illegal, and personal harvesting is limited, but there are still commercial ramp "poachers".  Many states in the United States are noticing a deterioration of local ramp populations, mostly due to commercial harvesting, and "Ramp festivals". Some of these festivals attract as many as 35,000 tourists to small Appalachian towns.

Ramp plants take 7 years to reach maturity where they can produce seeds. However, they can reproduce via rhizomes (part of the roots) or from the bulbs splitting into two. As a result, the most sustainable way to harvest them is to never take the bulb! The leaves are just as flavorful, if not more so, and have a more appealing texture. Never buy plants that have the bulb, or eat at restaurants that feature the whole plant. Try to encourage others not to dig up or use the whole plant. (I pulled one here by accident, but it helps with identification purposes). Never take more than one leaf from the plant. Only harvest from large, well-established flushes (patches) of plants, and never take from more than 25% of the plants. The flowers and "mini bulbs" that form from them are also edible, but I would advise against it, again, for perpetuation of the species.

Many experienced foragers will say things like "only take 25%/15%/ etc." but the fact remains, there is no science behind these statements. The only scientific study I have found indicates that if you take 25% of the population, it takes 20 years to recover. Essentially, harvesting any bulbs is unsustainable practice. Source: Smokey Mountain Sightline (abstract & summary) Complete Scientific Study Here. A British study, conducted in Quebec, confirms these findings Abstract here, as does a St. Lawrence University Study, and scientists and professors interviewed by NPR.

"But Native Americans ate these for centuries!" people say. And that is true, but they only used trimmings from the leaves. (New York Times).

Ramp seeds can take 18 months to germinate. (US Department of Agriculture). Once the seed germinates, the plant can take 5 years to reach reproductive maturity. Source: St. Lawrence University study. So for every bulb you take, it can take up to 7 years to be replaced. Even when the plants are mature, they generally only reproduce every other year (Same US Dept. of Agriculture link), and most of the seeds they release will never germinate.

Ramps have 2-3 broad, smooth, richly-green leaves. The "stems" of the leaves are often burgundy colored, and the bulbs are white and look like onions.

Ramps do have one deadly poisonous look-a-like: Lily-of-the-Valley. This isn't very surprising, as onions are part of the lily family. Once blooming, Lily-of-the-Valley has small, white or rose, bell-shaped flowers which dangle from along the length of a short (leaf-height) stalk. The flowers of the Ramp are small white clusters at the end of tall stalks. Before either blossoms, the leaves look nearly identical, though the way Lily-of-leaves merge together is a little different.

The test is simple: break off a leaf and take a whiff! Ramps smell very strongly of onion and garlic, and Lily-of-the-Valley does not. It is important that you do NOT have garlic mustard or field garlic on your hands when you test for ramps, otherwise you could think you smell onion from the plant, when it is just your hands. Lily-of-the-Valley also have thicker leaves, with an almost rubbery feel. Ramp leaves are thin and papery, almost translucent when held up to the light.

Special note: ramps only grow in the eastern half of the United States, and parts of the mid-west. Take a look at this map from the USDA. If you find something you think is a ramp outside of this range, it probably isn't.

I find ramp leaves keep well in water inside the fridge. They will stay un-wilted for a week, but they loose their flavor after 3-4 days, so don't harvest more than you intend to use during that time. 

For long-term storage, rinse ramp leaves, and dry completely. Though they can be frozen in freezer bags, I find them less flavorful and with a some what mushy texture when used this way. Ramps may just be one thing best enjoyed in season. Another way to preserve the flavor of ramps is to make ramp butter, I will make a post about that later.


  1. I think i may have found ramps when out looking for mushrooms. They look just like all the pictures but they are also very young still. (The leaves are probably only an inch and a half long so far). But it doesnt have an oniony smell. Does that come as the plant matures?

    1. you will see dark coloration on the leaf like spots.. those are not ramps..

    2. you will see dark coloration on the leaf like spots.. those are not ramps..

    3. No, ramps will have an oniony smell from the very first. Even if you don't see any leaves, the bulb will still be oniony.

      If you don't smell the onion smell they are not ramps. DO NOT EAT. They may be a member of the closely related lily family, and many of those are deadly.

    4. Jimmy'm not sure what you are speaking about, she didn't mention anything about dark spots, but if you see a dark-spotted leaf that somewhat resembles ramps, it might be the trout lily. I would need to see pictures to know for sure.

    5. It sounds as though he is describing 'trout lilly', (single green leaf with dark purple spots) which is edible. Look it up and draw your own conclusion, before eating anything.

  2. Hi Krystal! It's hard for me to guess what you have without pictures, but I would say you probably don't have ramps if they don't have an oniony smell--but the smell is less when the plant is smaller, so try breaking a leaf in half. If the cut part still doesn't smell like onions, I really don't think you have ramps. Whereabouts are you located?

  3. Where is the map for locations in the United States?

    1. This is the one from the USDA, several foraging books may have more accurate ones, but those would be copy written.

  4. What if you cut the bulb above the roots, leaving a portion of the bulb attached to the root?

    1. While that would be better, doing so repeatedly would still kill the plant. You see, ramps only leaf out for a few weeks each year. They have to get enough photosynthesizing done during that time. When you pick a leaf, it doesn't grow back till next year. That's why I only advocate taking one. The plant will still survive if you take both, but it will have to use up it's stored energy. If you take both leaves several years in a row, the plant will run out of energy and die. Also, anytime you take both leaves or part of the bulb, you make the plant work harder just to stay alive--and it won't reproduce that year.

  5. Thanks for posting the picture of lily of the valley. I saw the top pictures of ramps and thought, 'that looks like lily of the valley!' Glad to know the difference.