Ramps: How to Forage & Eat Wild Leeks

Wild Ramps

Sustainably harvested ramps.

Ramps, ramsons or wild leeks, are one of the earliest wild edibles to emerge, and, for some, they're the holy grail of wild edibles. Historically ramps were regarded as a spring tonic in the Appalachians. Early settlers relied on their restorative qualities after long, hungry winters.

The high vitamin C in ramps has saved many a mountaineer from scurvy and other nutritional maladies. Modern foragers dream all year about that uniquely pungent garlicky-onion flavor...the same flavor that odiferously permeates your pores to effectively stave off man and beast. 

Ramps (Allium tricoccum) occur at higher elevations in Eastern North America from Georgia to Canada. They're easily recognized by their 1 or 2 broad leaves measuring 1 to 2 1/2 inches wide and 4 to 12 inches long.

 

Foraging Ramps

Unfortunately for ramps, they're super-trendy these days. Chefs, foodies, and other ramp-lovers flock to the mountains by the thousands for a chance to bask in their gourmet-ness. "Ramp feeds," known as ramp festivals now, have been taking a toll on ramp populations for years and the added pressure of their recent popularity has really put a hurting on their numbers. The implications affect conservationists and foodies alike. Cindy and I are conservationists first and foragers second. What this means for us is that ramping is not only unsustainable, but it gets more arduous each year as we climb higher and longer to find undiscovered ramp patches.

Traditionally, the Cherokee dug, and still dig, ramps by leaving the roots. This is done by cutting off the bottom of the bulb with a pocket knife while it's still in the ground. It's really a simple process.

Sustainably digging ramps
Sustainably harvesting ramps--the root is cut off and left intact in the ground.

Tools For Harvesting Ramps Sustainably

  • Time
    This one is really important. It's way too easy to run up to the ramp patch after work with good intentions of sustainbly digging ramps. You get to the trailhead at 5:30pm and it's 6pm by the time you're digging ramps. The sun's about to slip behind the mountains and you're in a sudden hurry to get your ramps and get out of there. So you abandon your plan and jerk as many roots out of the ground as you can before running out. DON'T DO IT! Sustainably harvesting ramps takes more time, so you really need to make allowance for it. Plus it's a lot more fun to have a leisurely walk into the woods, not worrying about racing the waning light. If you can't give yourself the time to do it, please consider taking only greens and leaving the bulbs undisturbed.
  • Digging knife
    You need a small digging implement to pull back dirt from the bulb--a Japanese hori hori tool is perfect for this!

    Get a Japanese Hori Hori for digging ramps from Amazon
     
  • Sharp knife
    Make sure it's sharp! A dull knife will do more harm than good--you'll end up mutilating the bulb so it's not useable as food and not viable as a plant. You may even want to touch up the blade as you dig, since the grit of the dirt will take your edge. I just use a pocket knife with about a two inch blade. Anything bigger can be cumbersome.
  • Backpack or shoulder bag
    I usually put a few plastic grocery bags in a backpack and then load a bag or two with ramps before putting them in my pack, which helps keeps the dirt out of the pack.

How to Harvest Ramps Sustainably

To sustainably dig ramps, using a digging knife or stick, gently pull back the dirt from around the bulb, being careful to leave the roots in the ground. Pull back just enough dirt to expose a little bit of the bulb so you can see where to put your knife. Then carefully cut away the bottom third of the bulb with roots, leaving them in the ground. Then re-cover the roots with dirt and leave them to grow next year. That's all there is to digging. Please be judicious and don't take any more than you will use. I find that, when I overzealously harvest, it makes more work for me in the long run, because some ramps will inevitably go bad before I can get to them. There's not much more disgusting than the smell of past-their-prime ramps. And a few ramps go a long way so there's no need to stockpile them.

Sustainably harvested ramp
Sustainably harvested ramp.

Even though we practice sustainable harvest, I'm afraid the ever-inceasing demand will eclipse the slow procreation.

So we've been looking into the possibility of cultivating our own ramps. I've always heard they'll survive almost anywhere in our Southern Appalachian region but will only propagate above 3000 feet. We've successfully transplanted ramps that come back each year but our little patch hasn't spread (it's below 3000 ft.). According to North Carolina Extension Horticultural Specialist Jeanine M. Davis, ramps can be transplanted and cultivated from seed at much lower elevations.  Apparently, it takes some effort to germinate seeds when climes are warmer than ideal, but it can be done. And once a good patch is established, it supposedly requires little maintenance. Jeanine recommends the book Having Your Ramps and Eating Them Too by the "Johnny Appleseed of Ramps" for more info on cultivating ramps.

Storing & Preserving Ramps

Ramps are only in season for a month or so, but, for us, getting them is only half the problem. I usually come back from a good ramping trip with several pounds: enough for us to eat fresh before they go bad with a little extra to keep for eating later (I rarely go digging more than once a season unless I come home with a particularly light harvest).

Both leaves and bulbs can be eaten and both are delicious. They're best used fresh, but both can be put away for eating later in the year. 

The easiest way to store ramp bulbs is by freezing: Simply cut off the greens, clean the dirt off the bulbs and cut off the roots (if your ramps still have roots). Then spread the bulbs out on a sheet pan or waxed paper so they are not touching and freeze. This prevents them from sticking together. Once they're frozen put them in jars or plastic containers, seal tightly and put in the freezer for up to six months. You can also wrap them individually in wax paper and store frozen in sealed jars. They can also be pickled but we don't usually bother.

The greens won't last long fresh and deteriorate when frozen. They can be dried, but they lose a lot of their flavor. We've found the best way to preserve them is by making ramp compound butter (see recipe below). A close second is ramp pesto. Either can be stored in the refrigerator in the short term or frozen for use later.

For short term storage put ramps in the refrigerator as soon as possible. They should be stored uncleaned. If a refrigerator is not immediately available ramps can be kept with the bulbs submerged in a bucket of water and placed in a cool shaded area. The leaves will start to wilt in the refrigerator after 4 days or so and in the bucket after a day or so depending on temperature.

Cooking & Eating Ramps

Ramp bulbs and leaves can be diced and used just as you would use onions, green onions, leeks, chives and garlic, but they are much more potent.  They pair well with the following:

  • pasta
  • eggs
  • chanterelles and other wild mushrooms
  • potatoes
  • stir fried and raw greens
  • pork

Some folks like to eat ramps raw. I like a little chopped up in a salad, but ramps as a cooked vegetable are a lot more fun. My favorite way to eat them is mixed into venison burgers or in ramp and white cheddar soup. And it's hard to beat ramps and eggs for breakfast. 

Mom & Ramps Forever!Mom & Ramps Forever! A few years back, Cindy came across this sweet little book from West Virginia called Mom & Ramps Forever! by Barbara Beury McCallum. There's some fun anecdotal history on ramps in there. It's also a collection of old timey recipes and stand-bys like pickled ramps and ramp champ - mashed potatoes with ramps. Here's one of the recipes... quick and easy and sounds tasty:

Ramps With Watercress

"Fry some bacon until crisp, remove the bacon then drain off part of the bacon drippings. Put washed cress into the pan with the water that clings to it. Cook covered, until tender. Garnish with crumpled bacon, finely chopped ramps, and some chopped hard cooked eggs."

Unfortunately, Mom & Ramps Forever! is out of print, but it's a nice one for the collection if you can find it.

Comments

Squarah's picture

Yummy! Just need some ramps!

Anonymous's picture

We have tried to cultivate ramps from seed for 3 years here in Connecticut with no success. Only by moving early spring bulbs with lots of little roots still attached have we managed to transplant a few plants. We would love to become a Johnny Rampseed of the Northeast otherwise!

Eric Orr's picture

Sounds like the seed thing is tricky, but I'm definitely interested in giving it a go.  Soon as I get my copy of the ramp book, I want to try it.

Donna Anderson's picture

Don't give up Eric! I did the same thing. About 4 years ago I planted 50 ramps seeds and hovered over them each spring. Nothing. This year I was rewarded with about 20 beautiful plants. I didn't dig these up either, because I know what a process now they go through to become a ramp. Just make sure you have a nice wooded place, good rich soil from the woods, patience, and some shade. There you go! Good luck!

Eric Orr's picture

That's awesome, Donna! It's good to hear from someone who's been successful at propagating from seed. Thanks for the inspiration!

Meg's picture

I ordered baby ramps off eBay ($10 for $11 including shipping) this year to plant my own little patch. They came in pretty good shape right before I went away for the weekend. I put them in water since I didn't have time to plant them and they had drank all the water and tripled in size when I got home on Sunday. Once you get some bulbs established, I believe they reseed themselves, so I think that is the easier way to go.

Karen's picture

We find that by finely slicing the leaves into thin ribbons and packing them into plastic containers, they freeze extremely well. Then we just add them still frozen to soups, biscuits, and other recipes. That way we are able to use ramps all year.

Eric Orr's picture

We'll have to try that this year. I've heard that blanching them before freezing helps a lot, too.

doledrumdiva's picture

How sad to read that over harvesting is decimating your local ramp population :-(
- over here in London, the ancient forest on the outskirts has banned the gathering of wild mushrooms for the same reason. I (respectfully) have two suggestions for you, if germination at lower altitudes seems too hit and miss. 1) Go back to the mountains when the ramp season is over and the seeds have properly ripened, and distribute them in places that you know used to have colonies - as they grow in clumps, some seed never makes it to the forest floor, so as long as you harvest responsibly - say taking only 1/8 of seeds from a clump, you can help reverse the damage done by others.
2) For growing in your own urban space, try the seeds of a related species - in Europe, Allium ursinum grows wild, we call it Wild Garlic or Ransoms. The bulbs are smaller than your Ramps, but the leaves are about the same size and delish, and they grow at sea level. Check out the Plants for a Future website, pfaf.org, which lists over 7000 useful plants from around the world, to see pictures. If you enter 'Allium' in their search engine, both your Ramps, and our Ransoms are listed on the 3rd page. I have a thriving colony in a shady spot in my garden. Love and blessings.

Middtenn's picture

Mushrooms are the fruit of mycelium (The fungus that grows underground - in the case of earth sprouting mushrooms). By harvesting them you are not depleting them. In actuality the spores are being spread over a greater distance.

skeetertrader's picture

There are mushroom hunters out there that do not know what they are doing and they can deplete the population. When harvesting them you should not pull them up but cut them off leaving the roots in tact. We also always collect in mesh bags so that we are spreading spores as we walk through the forest.

Tom's picture

This guy knows what he is talking about.

Maggiea's picture

I know that the Morels are not growing where I have always harvested them. When I first started in that area, they were extremely abundant, about 15 years ago or so, but now all that's there are False Morels. We have so many people picking to sell that there's not much to forage for us common folks.

Tom's picture

Hi Maggiea, because Morels are spread by spores the crop tends to move which ever way the wind was blowing on that day, usually from the West. So look East of your usual spot or last year's spot....it has been working for me and of course don't tell anybody where you are finding some. It has been cold with lots of rain so I think growing season will be a little later this year in Central Ontario. All the best.

Cindy_Sue's picture

Has anyone bought them online before? I found some for sale here: http://wildwestvirginiaramps.com/wild-west-virginia-ramps-for-sale/ but I was wondering if anyone else had good experience with that?

Laurie Benson's picture

It is illegal to collect "ramps" any more in Québec due to over-harvesting - they were so sought after by the restaurant industry and exports too...they take three years to germinate from seed, I heard, and several more to become mature enough to flower and produce seed. A bit like how Ginseng and Goldenseal were wiped out from commercialization. If we could only take as much as we need, gently, and help the next generation propagate, as it should be done, these helpful plants would be there for us for eternity.

Kim's picture

Great article! We are on year two of experimenting with ramp seed in a raised bed. We will see if we get germination. Also, ramps grow at less elevation than 3000 feet. We're in Ohio about 800 feet above sea level.

Eric Orr's picture

Thank you! Good luck with the germination--let me know how it turns out! Yes, ramps grow at lower elevations but not in the southern Appalachians.

Kathy Jacobson's picture

Do Not Cut the Bulb! Only harves one leaf from each plant! If you cut the bulb it will not regrow, it will kill the plant.
I am an Appalachian forest steward, a member of the United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary Network. Please refer to their website for more information and please correct this article.

Helen's picture

Sound correct. Depriving the plant of the chance to go to seed would seem like the real reason for decline. Several pounds collected is really over doing it.

Eric Orr's picture

And yet the technique has been proven. Ramps are in decline because they're overharvested with little regard to sustainability. Several pounds in a ten acre colony with little harvest pressure is a drop in the bucket for one person, but without considering several factors, you could say one bulb is overdoing it.

Terry Miller's picture

I'm from central Ohio and had an old timer show me where ramps were located along an old railroad bed. I dug up a bunch and replanted in my woods at home - north side of the hill. Nothing special, just stuck them in the ground. They began producing the next year, but I left them go for several years before harvesting. It has been 10 years now, and I have 4 patches that are going nuts! The largest is 10 ft x 10 ft with satellite patches beginning around them. I tried planting 2 separate patches at anearby location on the South side of the same hill, with limited success.

Donald Hecht's picture

I've come across several healthy patches on Long Island, essentially at sea level.

Lynn Aranow's picture

We have been eating ramps for years.... We recently moved to SW Wisconsin and the ramps here have white stems... Not the reddih ones we're accustomed to. Are these safe to eat?

Eric Orr's picture

Yes, ramps can have white stems, too. As long as it has a strong onion/garlic smell, you should be safe eating it.

Kathy Jacobson's picture

HI! Wonderful to hear from fellow rampy folks! I'm in SE Ohio, transplanted a few bulbs 4 years ago, then more 2 years ago: NE slope with Sugar Maples, Poplars, other indicator species. The transplants did pretty well, I enjoyed sitting out talking with them and munching one leaf from a few of them this spring.
I also planted seed in the same vicinity 2 years ago but none have made their appearance yet. One just never knows when they may pop up, similar to wildflower seed...might take a number of years and then all of a sudden I get a surprise.
Thanks for caring :-) and best wishes!

Donald White's picture

Very informative and helpful.
What changes occur to limit the season to about a month?

Eric Orr's picture

Hi, Donald, I haven't noticed anything that would be a major influence on length of season (e.g., temperature, etc.). Ramp leaves just don't last very long before turning yellow and then disappearing.

Stan K's picture

Interested - When is the growing season in North Georgia? Do the ramps grow in shady areas? Should you look in a particular area, near trees, rocky hillside, or near water? Thanks!

Add new comment