Ramps: How to Forage & Eat Wild Leeks

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. 

Wild Ramps

Sustainably harvested ramps.

Identification & habitat

Ramps (Allium tricoccum) occur in Eastern North America from Georgia to Canada. They're easily recognized by their 1, 2, or 3 broad leaves measuring 1 to 2 1/2 inches wide and 4 to 12 inches long.

The leaves appear in early April and last until around mid-May. As May temperatures get warmer, the leaves will turn yellow and die.

Look for ramps underneath dense deciduous forest canopy in well-drained soil that's rich with organic matter. They generally like north-facing slopes.

There are some dangerous look-alikes so be sure the plants you pick smell like onion or garlic.

Do not pick the dangerous Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) or False hellebore (Veratrum genus) by mistake.

Again, make sure they smell like onion or garlic. If you're unsure, please let a knowledgeable forager confirm your find or just pass on picking. It may also be helpful to consult multiple references for more positive identification.

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

I used to use a pocket knife with about a two inch blade but I've found that a longer fixed-blade knife works better. It's much easier to get a four-inch blade to the root without disturbing the dirt around it.

  • 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. You won't need nearly as much time if you only harvest leaves!

  • Sharp hunting 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. You'll also want to make sure the blade is at least three or four inches so you can easily reach the root without disturbing the soil.

    If you insist on digging the root, use a hori hori knife to minimize impact.

  • 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

The most sustainable way to harvest ramps is to cut only one leaf, leaving the bulb and second leaf to continue growing. This is least impactful on the soil, the plant, and the colony as a whole. The leaves, in my opinion are the best part, anyway, and taking only leaves is the best way to ensure the colony will remain viable.

Sustainably harvested ramp.
Sustainably harvested ramp.

If you insist on taking bulbs, please dig sustainably: Using a digging knife or stick:

Then carefully cut away the bottom third of the bulb with roots, leaving them in the ground.

  1. Gently pull back the dirt from around the bulb, being careful to leave the roots in the ground.

  2. Pull back just enough dirt to expose a little bit of the bulb so you can see where to put your knife.

  3. 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.

 

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 here. 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! 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.

 

Ramp Compound Butter

Author
Cindy Halbkat
INGREDIENTS
  • 1 lb. softened butter

  • 1 to 2 cups ramp greens, chopped

  • 2 Tbls freshly squeezed lemon juice

INSTRUCTIONS
  1. Combine all ingredients in a food processor until smooth and pack in small containers.

NOTES

Use just as you would garlic butter.