Early April; Spring Ephemerals are sprouting and flowering up from the moist earth, fields are dotted with yellow Dandelion flowers, millions of songbirds are migrating north, and in the deep forest ecosystems, in rich moist coves, Ramp season has started.
Ramps (Allium tricoccum), also called wild leeks, are a relative of the common garden plants onion and garlic. The entire plant, leaves and bulbous root are edible and are a traditional food for native cultures and pioneers alike. Ramps can be found in rich moist coves all across the Appalachian Mountains. They are often found near water, above when springs and seeps bubble up to the surface.
Ramps are a bulb-forming perennial with broad, smooth, light green leaves, often with deep purple or burgundy tints on the lower stems. They can be further identified by the oniony smell. Use a field guide to correctly ID ramps and not a poisonous look alikes Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) and False Hellebore (Veratrum viride).
Because of their popularity, populations of ramps have been declining in certain areas of heavy harvest. It is important for me to use honorable harvesting practices when wild foraging and ramps are no exception:
* Spread out your harvest: Often ramps will grow in patches and many plants to a cluster. Thin out clusters by harvesting one or few plants from the middle of the cluster. Don't over-harvest one patch, but harvest little bits from many patches.
* Harvest with Future Generations in mind: Often commercial harvesters will dig up the whole plant, roots and all. I like to use a Hori-Hori (Japanese digging knife) to cut the ramps just under the soil, but above the root line, allowing the plant to sprout back and grow next year. This also saves time as you get less dirt on your harvest.
* Vote with your dollar $$: High end locally-minded restaurants will feature ramp dishes on their spring menus. Often the suppliers for these restaurants are commercial harvesters using a "clear cut" method, a "take all" mentality. Ask the restaurants if their ramps have been ecologically harvested.
* Give Thanks: Our gratitude can be our greatest gift. When you arrive to the ramp patch take a moment to notice the beauty, smell the air, listen for the birds, and cultivate a sense of gratitude for all that we are given in this lifetime. This offering of gratitude, as well as any physical gifts or offerings you bring creates reciprocity: a balance of giving and receiving.