The Ramps Are Here!

Ramps are the native-American cousins of the widely cultivated, foreign garlic. They are also known as wild leeks and ramsons. Garlic lovers have long been familiar with these unique relatives. They have been celebrated in the Southern Appalachian region for many decades at annual community gatherings and festivals, some lasting for several days. Some of these start as early as March 21st when the ramps first make their appearance. Locals in this region are out searching for them even in February. This is usually premature, but the desire to have them is that compelling.

They arrived this year at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City on Saturday, April 21st. They can be found growing wild in New York's Central Park, Queens' Alley Pond Park, and for that matter, anywhere there are rich, moist deciduous forests. From Nova Scotia and Quebec, through New England to Georgia, and as far west as Minnesota, they grow in patches or colonies throughout Eastern to Central North America.

Ramps arrived here in Sundown in mid-April and will be with us for another few weeks. Then, like so many spring ephemerals, their above ground manifestation will nearly disappear. All that will remain is their flower stalk and eventual seeds. These, too, will be gone by late June or early July as the trees leaf out and shade the patches.

As the soil warms in late winter and early spring, before the trees leaf out, this onion family member's rolled up foliage pushes its way out of the earth and through the leaf litter. It expands into a feather shaped broad leaf six to eight or more inches long and up to two inches in width. The leaves are rather fragile in that they bruise easily. Its bulb-like base resembles the spring onions that they taste a lot like, except they also have a strong garlic flavor and aroma. This is their attraction.

Allium tricoccum makes its appearance very early, usually at the same time as coltsfoot, skunk cabbage, Dutchman's britches, and trout lily. Ramps have gone from primitive mountain folks' "first greens" to a gourmet quality food and culinary treasure, social medicine and health tonic. Fresh ramps now fetch $10 a pound and more.

The National Ramp Association features its annual Feast of the Ramson each spring. Early settlers and Native Americans sought them out as the first fresh edible vegetation to savor after a long winter of bland dried or preserved fruits, nuts, meat, or stored root-vegetables. In addition, they believed ramps cleansed the blood. Eating ramps became a spring rite, much like it is today.

As popular as the garlic festivals and their celebrations of the "stinking rose", a documentary film on ramp festivals was recorded in 2004. It was titled "The King of Stink". It was shown a year later on public television stations. In West Virginia entire towns get together to both cook and eat raw large quantities of ramps. Halls are filled, as are school cafeterias, so folks can commence to "dancin' and stinkin'". Eleven festivals were documented. Collective harvests were referred to as Ramp Romps.

The name "ramp" has a few histories offered for its origin. The most likely seems to involve the fact that the plant usually makes its appearance between March 20 and April 20, on the zodiac calendar under the sign of Aries, the Ram, the male of the sheep family, robust, spirited and odiferous. Ramson (son of Ram) refers to the habit of its appearance at the same time each year, along with its pungent taste and odor, which lingers on the breath and in the pores.

The wild leek is considered April's wild food of the month. No one seems to know when the first ramp eating get-together took place in Cherry Bottom, VA (now Richwood, West Virginia), but it is believed to have been near the turn of the last century when Cherry Bottom's name was changed when the timber mills came to the forests. What started as the "Big Ramp Feed" naturally led to the formation of the National Ramp Society, later to become "Association" complete with membership cards. This years 69th Annual Feast of the Ramson at Richwood, West Virginia's was held on April 21st. The Chamber of Commerce has confirmed that, including volunteers, 1400 people were served ramps in their diverse menu replete with the traditional scrambled eggs and home fries. This was all in one afternoon in the school cafeteria.

So popular have ramps become, that only a couple of years ago the National Park Service banned their collection and harvesting in the Great Smokey Mountains for fear they might disappear. They are no longer a regional delicacy. The proliferation of festivals throughout the Appalachians has become a tourist attraction, with devotees attending several. Ramps have become gourmet faire in some of the best restaurants.

Recognizing the wild leek is easy. It has two, at most three, broad smooth green feather-shaped leaves with a small white bulb attached with a purplish stem. The best quality ramp has leaves six or so inches long and two inches wide. Leaves will have an unmistakable onion/garlic odor, the larger the plants the stronger the odor and flavor. They are high in vitamins A and C and full of beneficial minerals. They also possess the same quality as other members of this family in that they reduce cholesterol in the eater.

A word of caution: The leaves resemble those of Lily of the Valley in appearance, and these are toxic. Crush a leaf and the characteristic onion/garlic odor will immediately settle any question.

As the tree canopy begins to develop and shade the ground, the ramps leaves will wither and die, leaving a single flower bud on a stem. This usually opens in June or July and is another wonderful feature of this marvelous plant. The flower is a spherical creamy white umbel that is especially attractive. The seeds fall close by, and eventually germinate (one to two years later) and increase the size of the patch. Once the flower fades away, the entire plant goes into dormancy until the following March or April.

All kinds of folk remedies have been passed on. They come from Native Americans and early settlers, from the Appalachian population in the 1890s, and the settlements along southern lake Michigan known as shikako (skunk place), later known as Chicago. Cures for coughs and colds, and relief from itches, bee stings, and earaches are among the many.

Used in soups, stews, casseroles, and meat loaf, wild leek recipes abound. Some from pioneer times when hunters and trappers had regular leek parties including bear, venison and leek greens.

While the small bulbs are packed with flavor, harvesting some of the leaves alone will insure a good crop for the coming years. They'll keep for a week in the cold refrigerator. Both greens and bulbs can be dried and pickled, the latter being a favorite among aficionados.

If they are nearby, go forth and savor this stinky treat that won't be available again for another year. You'll be captivated and might even become a connoisseur. Providing you like garlic, that is. I'm a fan.


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on May 23, 2007

© 2007 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.