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From the Ethnobotanist

Ramps Action Alert: The Sustainable Stand

Action Alert  

Ramps or wild leeks, native of  rich woodlands in the eastern US are becoming vulnerable  to over harvesting, especially due to increased demand by the culinary trade.  In 2011 it is estimated at least 2 million plants will be harvested. 

You may see them offered for sale in specialty food stores, health food stores, farm stores, farmer’s markets, on the internet and on restaurant menus. Recommendations are not to purchase whole plants and bulbs.

 In recent years: 

Large Increase in media attention has brought unprecedented demand upon this plant especially in the culinary industry

Increase in  commercial and individual harvesting activities

Increase in commercial and retail sales


 Negative Results: 

Habitat disturbance

Increase vulnerability to invasive plants

Over harvesting

In some cases whole clumps wiped out

Reduced sustainability of the plant

Reduced ability of the plant to reproduce; long recovery time after harvesting

Increased susceptibility because of other conditions such as climate change and overgrazing




Harvest leaves only

Harvest not more than 20% of leaves from any single clump

Do not purchase whole plants from markets

Do not order dishes containing ramp bulbs

Encourage your restaurant or store to sell leaves only

Speak up


 Chefs and food purveyors 

Cease buying whole plants and bulbs

Cease serving and selling whole plants and bulbs.

Use sustainably harvested leaves only



Cease all commercial harvesting of whole plants

Harvest leaves only, not more than 20% in any year

Keep track of where you have harvested and when


Ramps (Wild Leeks): When is Local not Kosher?

A photo of Lawrence Davis-HollanderThis spring at least two million plants of wild leek or ramps will be harvested and consumed by individuals, ramp festivals, and especially the culinary industry. Ramps are one of the first harbingers of spring in the eastern forests and for wild food enthusiasts a special treat. Recent demand and consumption of ramps has increased dramatically due to their new culinary cache creating threats to plant populations and disturbance to the forests in which they reside.

 Ramps (Allium tricoccum and A. tricoccum var. burdickii) are  members of the allium or onion family. These two species  grow in the rich mesic woods in the eastern half of the United States from Canada and New England  to Minnesota, Michigan, south to Missouri,  and east  to Tennessee and North Carolina and occasionally as far south as the mountains of Georgia.  These woodland habitats  tend to be populated by other fragile spring ephemerals such as Trilliums, Bloodroot, Dutchman’s Breeches, and many other notable spring wildflowers. Ramps grow in small to fairly large patches where they may be locally common and sometimes abundant. The leaves are deep green, the above ground leaf blade about five inches long, tapering to a thin reddish purple stalk (petiole), the remainder underground, whitish, and ending in small white elongated bulb up to inch in length.  A. tricoccum var burdickii is similar with slightly smaller flowers (and therefore smaller seed production) and a white stem, although color is not a sure identifier of the species. They are reputed to be somewhat milder. The foliage of cultivated lily of the valley, superficially resembles ramps.

 The entire plant smells garlic-like. Wild leeks possess a unique taste like a cross between a strong scallion, garlic, and leek with nuances not found elsewhere, hence their culinary appeal. Both the bulb and leaf can be eaten although the leaf has a somewhat more delicate flavor.  The leaves tend to toughen later in the season. The bulbs can be consumed fresh and are quite potent. Like all spring ephemerals the foliage begins to die back as the weather becomes hotter, typically in late June or July.

The word ramps was imported to America by settlers from the British Isles from the Scottish word ramps or ramsh. Its usage dates at least to the of the 17th century, derived from the Old English word hramsa,and Proto-germanic hramsaz and was used to describe, “a species of Garlick” Allium ursinum, or ramsons, which look similar to the American ramps. These grow throughout northern Europe in very moist locations and were the favorites of bears (hence ursinum) and wild boars. The word Ramson dates to 1547.  The latin antecedant, circa 1000 AD is variously ramusium, ramesan, or ramuscium. 

 Formerly in Switzerland. butter from Ramson grazing cows was a special delicacy. In Scotland hramsa is a mixture of Scottish Crowdie cheese, a soft cream cheese like cheese reputed to have been introduced by the Vikings, and double (heavy) cream, flavored with chopped leaves of wild garlic (ramsons). It is still produced today. The Scottish and English surname Ramsey, Ramsay or Ransom dating to the 14th century may be derived from this word, although sources vary about this attribution.  

My first encounter with ramps took place when I was 19 on a preserve in Connecticut where I was conducting a vegetation inventory for a summer internship with the Nature Conservancy. For a couple of weeks I tramped along side Dean a master soil conservationist  who reminded me of a younger Euell Gibbons, and his sidekick Ralph mapping soils. Soil guys always carry a small spade  and once Dean spied the ramps he exclaimed “thare’s lunch boys”. For the remainder of the days together when were in the right habitat, every once and a while Dean and I  would quell our hunger gnawing stomachs with a snack of raw ramp bulbs. Just brush off the earth and pop them in your mouth.  Somehow Ralph always walked behind us inhaling the overpowering ramp fumes and complaining about the penetrating odors. We did tell Ralph that the only way to escape was to indulge. He resisted.

Botanists are expressing concern at both the manner and current rate of harvest. Until recently wild leeks were generally harvested only by two groups. In the southeast especially there is a long history of wild plant foragers who have been harvesting for ramp festivals, roadside sales, and personal consumption. They seem to harvest in a traditional, more sustainable manner leaving ramp clumps relatively intact. Otherwise collection has been mostly by knowledgeable individual wild food foragers gathering a small amount of plants for personal and family consumption.

It is only during the last decade, and especially the last few years that the general public has become aware of what ramps look and taste like. This is due to the resurgence of interest in the culinary world to the far ranging diversity of cultivated and  “local” wild foods potentially available and the variety of dishes that can be produced from these foodstuffs. Ironically many chef proponents of sustainable cuisine, local and organic foods have readily embraced the consumption of ramps, local or not, in their restaurants.

This culinary interest coupled with a spate of articles, recipes, blogs,  special food  events and cable television shows has created a perhaps unprecedented focus on the harvesting of a single native North American food plant.  Before I stopped counting a quick Google search shows well over 200 recipes for ramp dishes. Many people newly acquainted with wild foods and ramps in particular are clearly not aware of the ecological damage their desire for the consumption of wild foods is having. Additionally new commercial collectors are entering the market and have no experience in collecting plants. They see ramp harvest as a relatively quick and easy way to diversify income  and appear to have little knowledge or appreciation for the long term consequences of wild plant digging.

Presently the less-than-responsible consumption and harvesting may be due to a lack of education in culinary circles. Hopefully this article may inform some of those misconceptions.

Wild plants have been commercially collected en masse from our forests for many uses especially medicinal, since colonial times. As early as 1750 large amounts of Ginseng were collected and sent to China, and this collecting continued unabated throughout much of the 20th century. Large amounts of other medicinals such as Mayapple, Blue  and Black Cohosh, and Goldenseal were collected during the 19th and early 20th century before the advent of modern pharmaceutical drugs.   Populations of some of these woodland plants have never recovered. Ginseng is a prime example of what can happen through over collection. Once a relatively common inhabitant of rich woodlands it is often infrequent and rare, and sometimes nearly extinct from some areas. Many botanists believe that ginseng was as abundant as ramps is today. While ramps are unlikely to become extinct any time soon, demand by consumers is having an effect, and unabated could over time greatly diminish this forest denizen.

According to Russ Cohen, a wild foods expert in Massachusetts and author of "Wild Plants I Have Known...and Eaten" entire colonies of  ramps are  being dug up in the Berkshires, leaving a barren patch of ground, a practice that is clearly not sustainable and leaving no possibility for regeneration. Cohen has observed that in the Berkshires, the main region in Massachusetts where the forest type supports the growth of ramps, any disturbance to ramp colonies can leave them susceptible to invasion by non native species such as garlic mustard. This phenomena has been observed in other regions. Christopher Ludwig, chief biologist for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Natural Heritage has noticed garlic mustard and an invasive grass where ramps have been disturbed.  Digging creates a surface of  open soil suitable for exotic seed germination, and produces gaps in relatively stable and invasive resistant clumps. Botanists have noticed that when a colony of plants is left undisturbed it may flourish and remain intact for a very long time, a phenomena known as stability. Once the invasive species take root in a clump of ramps they reduce the possibilities of the native plants reestablishing themselves. Relatively little is known scientifically about what  happens over time to a clump or ramps or other woodland wildflowers, once disturbed or dug up. Few scientific studies have been performed. 

Julie Richburg, a regional ecologist for the Trustees of Reservations points out that there are additional consequences for both ramp populations and the health of the forest due to harvesting. Invasive plants may have an allelopathic effect on the seeds and plants of native species by releasing chemicals that act as growth inhibitors  to the native plants and microrrhizal fungi. Trampling is another consequence of additional traffic in the woods. According to Richburg and Ludwig there are many pressures on native plant populations including deer and cattle grazing, habitat loss,  timber harvesting, climate change  and the increasing frequency of invasive plants. Additional human disturbance worsens an already serious problem. Plant populations left undisturbed gives them a better chance of surviving. The rate at which invasive species may invade a forest is based on a number of factors, particularly the size and remoteness of the forest, and the proximity and size of the populations of non native plants.

Commercially harvested ramps consist of the entire plant with the leaves attached to the bulb along with the stringy roots. Beginning in mid to late March foragers begin digging in the southeast, and the  harvest gradually moves north with the season beginning in mid to late April in the north and ending around mid to late June. One purveyor, Earthly Delights, begins getting group shipments from small harvesters in the southeast, of about 600-700 pounds trucked from each region, with main season shipments of 1,000 lbs every ten to fourteen days.  They sell direct to the consumer at around $9.50 - $12.00 per pound. The majority of their stock goes to chefs.  No one has established how many ramps are presently dug every year, and assembling precise statistics would be difficult.  Botanists, harvesters and purveyors agree that demand has skyrocketed during the last few years.

In North Carolina Dr.Jim Chamberlain Forest Products Research Technologist for the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station Unit in Blacksburg, VA, estimated that in 2002 3,200 pounds were used in ramp festivals, plus sales by road side stands, restaurants, and individual collectors.  He surmises these figures have not changed significantly since that time. It is easy to imagine that for all purposes combined at least 6,000 pounds or 350,000 plants are harvested in North Carolina alone.

About  eight years ago the long time tradition of picking ramps in Smokey Mountain National Park was banned due to concerns about over harvesting based on the results of a  long term study that began in 1989. Ramps were routinely over harvested in many instances with as much as 90% of the populations removed.  It was determined that It would take 100 years for these clump to recover, and it was estimated that clumps with 25% of their population harvested would take ten years to recover. It was thus determined that the rate of harvest was not sustainable, and would over time seriously deplete the ramp population. While generally illegal to pick any whole plant in a national park, harvesters, were allowed to take a  peck of ramps at a time before the ban.  In the national forests of North Carolina with a free permit it is legal to pick up to five pounds per individual per year.  Commercial permits are issued at the rate of fifty cents per pound for up to 500 pounds. Generally enforcement is impossible unless someone happens to be caught red handed.

 According to Gary Kauffman, botanist and ecologist for the national forests in North Carolina the ramp populations have been generally relatively slow to decline, although anecdotally he says he has seen a definite decrease in their population over the last 20 years. Ramps growing in the least accessible parts of the mountains are the least subject to heavy harvesting, while those patches closer to roads and trails have had considerably more digging. Another issue is that many of the ramps are being harvested illegally on both public state and federal lands, as well as private lands throughout their range. 

Dr. Joan Walker, research plant ecologist with the US Forest Southern Research Station has studied about 25 ramp plots over  a 10 year period and seen the ramp population remain relatively steady.  Dr Walker speculates this may indicate that with selective and judicious traditional harvesting methods used in these habitats in North Carolina it is  possible to maintain a patch’s population providing other factors such as overgrazing, invasives or climate change are absent. Whether non observed patches are doing as well in other areas of the National Forest, state or  private land is impossible to determine from this study.  She has heard that families who have long histories harvesting ramps recently feel that ramps are disappearing in some areas.  

In the Province of Quebec Canada ramps are considered a vulnerable plant, and commercial harvesting of them was made illegal after negative results from field studies. According to the regulations “No human intervention….may operate to destroy the fundamental nature of a wild population or of a specimen of a wild population.” The law does permit a person to possess wild leeks “outside its natural environment or may harvest it for the purposes of personal consumption in an annual quantity not exceeding 200 g …or a maximum of 50 bulbs or 50 plants” as long as the plants were not harvested from protected parks. This makes it impossible to serve ramps  at restaurants although there is no prohibition in Ontario or elsewhere in Canada. 

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services  records three states, Rhode Island, Maine and Tennessee in which ramps has  a ”listed” status as a plant of special concern.  

Dr. Jeanine Davis, a horticulturist in new crop development from North Carolina State University  suggests one Cherokee traditional method of harvesting utilizing leaves with their attached petiole, may be a viable alternative to bulb harvesting. The advantages of this method is that the ramps would not be killed upon harvest, the clumps would remain more intact, the leaves require no cleaning, the petiole gives a additional crunchy texture and the taste  excellent. This suggestion is echoed by Russ Cohen and Gary Kauffmann.  In Europe only the leaves of the wild ramp are collected for culinary use, a conservation practice that could be adopted in the United States.

Davis cautions that “over-harvest of leaves could over a long time period  be as deleterious as  the whole plant harvest, depriving ramps of the ability to grow and maintain vigor.” She is currently studying the effects of leaf harvest. Dr. Jim Chamberlain notes that in the ramp festivals the leaves are not used, a waste of a valuable resource constituting 30% of the weight of a harvested plant.

While many native wild flowers are difficult to propagate, Davis and others have discovered that ramps can be cultivated in their native habitats.  Seed of ramps can take 6 or 18 months to germinate and about five or more years to reach maturity, that is the ability to reproduce by seed.  Because of this long development cycle many native plants of the rich woodland are vulnerable.  When whole plants are harvested, especially before reaching maturity, they cannot produce seeds which ripen in fall. Jim Chamberlain is currently studying ramp reproduction by seed and its viability, he stresses  that “ there is no empirical evidence for how well the plant reproduces by seed—we just don’t know.”

Immature plants are routinely harvested along with full size plants, preventing these individuals from reaching maturity. I have observed many samples of wild leeks for sale that include both tiny and small bulbs. While some harvesters leave the small bulbs, or replant them as they harvest, many do not.

Ramps can also be propagated by so called root division by separating the smaller buds which form along the rhizome, once the plant has reached maturity,  and replanting them. Replanted bulbs require 3-5 years to reach maturity depending on conditions and bulb size. Glen Facemire, Jr. proprietor of the Ramp Farm in West Virginia claims to be the only all ramp farm in the United States. His farm is situated in one of the rich mountain valleys of West Virginia where leeks are native.  He sells leeks for eating and replanting in addition to seeds. Their retail price is a hefty $21.55 per pound including shipping. Facemire says he both digs wild ramps and his cultivated stock.  When asked about his success with seeding he said that he did not track it, while Jeannine Davis assured me that his ramp population have proliferated from his cultivation efforts.

Some harvesters assert that by cutting off the root tip from the bulbous stem and replanting, a new plant will form. According to Gary Kauffman field studies prove this is not the case. He indicates that only by leaving a larger portion of the bulb is it possible for the plant to survive and then the results are marginal.

 Chamberlain says it is clear that ramp populations are suffering.  “When you reduce the population’s ability to reproduce by removing both the rhizome and the seed source there is always a net loss.” He believes the tipping point for the decline in ramps began in the 1990’s with the first promotions of ramps as a food source initially by magazines and then by the larger culinary world. “Demand for ramps by the niche markets is increasing. There has been a real push in the culinary community for ever increasing supply. There has not been an associated conservation effort to keep pace with this new and unsustainable paradigm.” He cautions making any conclusions about what may or may not be a sustainable rate of harvest without extensive study and data. Chamberlain is not opposed to harvesting in principle, and without more data and resultant development of  clear guidelines it is impossible to understand how to manage ramp populations. “ We can have a good handle on how to harvest timber products sustainably. Why not other plants? We need to get to the point where we treat these [woodland] plants as a natural resource, not a something here for our own exploitation.”

The ability of ramp populations to remain at current levels is now dependant upon a range of issues including the compromise and destruction of their habitat, over grazing, over harvesting, poor harvesting techniques invasive plants, their ability to reproduce and other factors.  There was a time when people perceived all natural resources to represent an unlimited supply of abundance which was free for the taking without consideration for the long term consequences. We have learned that this is never the case, whether it be our air, water, climate or animal, plant or fish populations.

In many instances we reach a point at which the homeostasis of a species or an ecosystem is compromised and it never recovers. Fortunately in many, though certainly not all populations of ramps this does not appear to be the case. While we cannot scientifically predict when the current rate of harvesting of ramps will have a bigger effect on the species, every knowledgeable authority I spoke with agreed now is the time to put on the brakes.

 The main group which has promulgated the current harvesting of ramps is the culinary community, and I ask them to consider the consequences of their appetites and cease the promotion and sale of wild leeks this Spring 2011.  Further I would ask chefs, food purveyors, food writers and bloggers who have recently heavily promoted ramps to  revise their print material in menus, magazines, radio shows and the web.

 A potential replacement for the whole plant harvest is to utilize leaves only.  The leaves keep for weeks refrigerated, and their flavor is wonderful. Leaf harvest should still be considered an area of concern and must be performed sustainably. Precisely what those parameters are is currently unclear.  Harvesting only a portion of the leaves, probably around 20% of a given clump would allow foliage to be removed on a once every five year rotation. This could only be a truly effective technique if commercial harvesters could track and mark every patch and then map the cut portions.  While relatively easy to implement it is unlikely that most individuals would adopt such practices. Nevertheless sticking to the 20% rule would be a good beginning.

For consumers particularly those eating in restaurants please don’t order ramps unless they designate leaves only, and please don’t buy them in stores.  Let the owners of these establishments know that you are concerned about them offering ramps.

For individual harvesters gathering for  family and friends I urge them to focus on leaf harvest.  If you absolutely much have some bulbs then consider a handful or two, not pounds.  If harvesting 25% of a patch takes 10 years to recover it is likely that taking 5% of the patch requires 2 years to recover. Is there an amount of bulb harvest that is sustainable?  Probably, and we do not know what that number is and we can surmise that is a very small amount.

Ramp collection in certain areas of the country especially West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania are deeply engrained the culture and foodways. The preservation of these traditions is important as long as they can maintain a sustainable harvest and avoid commercialization beyond the traditional uses before this century. Many anglers can’t wait for that first meal of fresh caught trout fried up with fresh springing leeks. Many of the organized ramp festivals in these states date to  the 1950’s, and are fund raisers for small volunteer fire departments and other community activities such as 4-H. Given their tradition and economic impact I would suggest it is probably reasonable that these regional celebrations continue at current level.

It is important to remember that we really do not know if these harvests are sustainable. Ideally ramp festivals would  explore methods for how they can monitor, preserve and increase current ramp populations without increasing the current rate of harvest. If ramp festivals utilized leaves that could reduce their harvests by as much as 30%.

Russ Cohen suggests looking at  other wild plants especially non-natives that can be readily consumed with impunity such as daylilies or native plants such as milkweed that do not have to be destroyed in order to enjoy them.

Ramps are everyone’s heritage and everyone’s responsibility. When our strongest desire is to act for the common good, or the sake of the whole, then our curiosity  opens to what can be learned and our caring wants to know the best way to do it well.   Kindness becomes our caring in action.   Unlike so many of the environmental problems that seem to plague us, the solution to this one is simple. Just say “no.”

Lawrence Davis-Hollander is an ethnobotanist, plantsmen and gardener, former director and founder of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, and currently a principal of DandelionGardening ArtsHe's an expert on heirloom vegetables, and a seed preservationist with an avid interest in herbs, spices, food, cooking, kitchen and ornamental gardens. His newest project revolves around sacred tobacco and its redistribution to native peoples. You can find him on .

The New York Times on Heirlooms, Open-pollinated and Hybrid Seeds

A photo of Lawrence Davis-HollanderThe New York Times March 24 article on seeds ("Heirloom Seeds of Flinty Hybrids?" appeared to me to be vaguely objective,  yet it was perhaps preloaded with some non-objective aims and means. Ultimately the article leaves you hanging with no real conclusion with bits and pieces of objectivity, lots of  positional viewpoints including [apparently?] the author’s. Which made for an interesting and somewhat informative article which was very incomplete.  If you are in to gardening it's worth a read and has some good info. Yet it left me dissatisifed.

It was incomplete because it was reductionistic. In other words it took somewhat complex issues  and reduced them to a few, sometimes personal explanations by the interviewees without sufficiently going into some important topics that could really lead to understanding. I for one would have liked to have seen more of that. Or it may reflect the material the author chose to utilize.

I agree positions can be fun and shake things up a bit. I was trained as a scientist from a holistic systems approach to try to understand what is occurring from a wider perspective. Perhaps this is another form of pseudo-objectivism yet very much grounded in multiple viewpoints and approaches. In my other life’s work I try when possible to seek balance, common ground, and viable solutions. For this blog I’m just going to begin by drilling down on  one  point If  and when time permits me I’ll address some other questions raised in the NYT article in another blog.

The article quotes Bob Heisey a tomato-and-pepper breeder for the United Genetics Seeds who puts the responsibility on the consumer for wanting to buy out of season produce.  I don’t know Bob and I suspect we’d have fun chatting.

So here’s my question. Is it the chicken or the egg that comes first? I’ve always wanted to know how this works when it comes to consumerism. As a nation we often hear some new product or gadget is now required because of consumer demand. The story is usually the same. We accept that we need this item and rush out and buy it. As time goes along we need more and more items, companies create more and more items and the consumer economy grows. This trend just keeps expanding along with its consumerist mentality.  Today I believe it truly may be the consumer making these demands because many of  us have become successfully rooted (or mired) in the instant gratification driven and distracted material culture.

Okay let’s move to tomatoes as an example. Was there really a movement that said we want tomatoes out of season? Was there a movement  called the tough-skin-out-of season-crappy-tasting movement or perhaps did it work the other way around?  I often hear big business claiming they have make something that the consumer wants. Could it be that they are doing what they want and are then using advertising to convince us it is what we need? Could it really work that way at least some of the time? Could innovations like the national highway system helped create the infrastructure for moving produce across the country? Could the ability to produce larger crops with more uniform hybrids and  mechanized means of production created the impetus for selling out of season to national markets? 

These are just a couple of examples where the story is likely  quite bit more complex. In most situations we can be aware that when one or two causes explains the situation, behind is often hiding more complexity. Reductionist thinking and explanation hurts us, hides the truth, and can make it much more difficult to build common ground.

Americans seemed perfectly happy for a hundred years eating tomatoes that were more  or less in season or canned. Tomatoes were shipped to markets for great distances in trains in the late 19th century and apparently did quite well.  We used to “test drive” heirloom tomatoes around in a truck for a few days and then send them chefs in  Boston and they arrived in perfect condition. I know farmers in California who ship heirloom tomatoes to the upper Midwest. Apparently for shipping you don’t need modern hybrid tough skinned tomatoes.  Most of us are familiar with the stories of how a couple of oranges in the stocking at Christmas was a huge treat. Today access to citrus is ordinary. Yes it’s what we are used to and now we expect it.

So I’m not sure we can take a singular position and say it is consumer demand which drove us away from regional and local heirloom tomatoes. Maybe the big rage over heirloom tomatoes is really about taste, not  simply fanatical “Luddite fundamentalists.”  It’s also possible if the industry had produced tasty tomatoes all along heirloom tomatoes would not have caught on. They didn’t disappear because they were no good.  Part of the explanation is they were simply replaced with new varieties by seed catalogs and seed producers.  Did people stop buying them or were the opportunities to obtain them diminish?  Why did seed banks and people keep all these old varieties going?  I would suggest it is because people saw value in them.

 Now that heirlooms have cache some people who are not afficionados of them appear to be complaining.  I remember some farmers being vitriolic in conversations with me about organic farming; they said it was a bunch of nonsense, fanatical back-to-the land-hippies. (haven’t seen too many hippies run a successful farm operation). 

There are democratic movements in the Mideast because people are sick of what they have been given. Lots of Americans were getting sick of mediocre tasting tomatoes that  were the only varieties they could locate in season and out. 

My point is there are many great heirloom tomatoes available. (we won’t go in to other crops now) And there are some which are which are interesting historic artifacts and not much more. There are some which will do well in your backyard and do terribly in mine. Yes if we only depended on 18th century wheats to feed us we’d be producing a hell of a lot less food today, no doubt about it. (most aren’t disease resistant) Some hybrid tomatoes are great, some are not. Some picked truly vine ripened are pretty good. Some only look good.

Disease resistance in modern hybrids can be very important factors for growing them. The fact is most heirloom tomato varieties have a very “narrow” set of genes making the whole group disease susceptible.

Yet if you look carefully at descriptions of many hybrid garden varieties of vegetables they indicate disease resistance, not immunity. Field performance depends on a whole range of other factors.  I’m not familiar with all current breeding work being done on tomatoes and I’m sure if some new additional genes from wild plants get incorporated there are new possibilities for better resistant tomatoes. I can tell you this; in 2009 no tomatoes were resistant to the blight that moved through the northeast due to excessive and constant moist conditions. According to the Times article breeders are working on this. Excellent. Hopefully they’ll produce some open pollinated varieties and people can save their own seed. For five years I watched both heirlooms and hybrids in  the same field. As a generalization ( I generalize because there 80 heirlooms and 6 hybrids) I can state that overall I saw no difference in their resistance to diseases. In some cases the heirlooms were somewhat less resistant and in other cases heirloom varieties outlasted the hybrids.

Let us accept the diversity of our food heritage, various approaches and use all the sound ecologic methods that promote a sustainable food system with nutritious, tasty results and leave simplistic, reductionist and positional floundering to our politicians.

Lawrence Davis-Hollander is an ethnobotanist, plantsmen and gardener, former director and founder of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, and currently a principal of DandelionGardening ArtsHe's an expert on heirloom vegetables, and a seed preservationist with an avid interest in herbs, spices, food, cooking, kitchen and ornamental gardens. His newest project revolves around sacred tobacco and its redistribution to native peoples. You can find him on .

Boston Marrow: Please Don't Save the Neck

A photo of Lawrence Davis-HollanderLast week a farmer friend of mine handed me a large squash that I was to use for testing some recipes. This was supposed to be Boston Marrow, an old heirloom squash well known and popular in and around Boston and elsewhere in the Northeast beginning in the second quarter of the 19th century. It commonly available in seed catalogs to the second half of the 20th century. It  is of the Hubbard group, large, orange or reddish orange with faint pale orange stripes extending from the stem end, down to the small protruding blossom scar. It can weigh from 15 pounds on up, easily reaching 30. It became  a classic New England squash, like blue Hubbard, although the species, maxima, originates in South America.

An incorrect necky Boston Marrow currently offered by some seed companies 
Boston Marrow from 2010 harvest with an errant neck 

A story relates this variety came from Indians who visited Buffalo, quite possibly the Seneca or Tuscarora, and in 1831 the seed was sent to a Mr. John Ives of North Salem, Massachusettes, from a friend in Northampton, Massachusettes. According to Ives, in the Spring of 1833 “I distributed seeds to many members of the Mass.. Horticultural Society, they never having seen it previously. At the annual exhibit of this Society at Faneuil Hall, September 1834, I exhibited  a specimen, merely marked "New Squash."

Engraving of Autumnal or Boston Marrow  1867 showing correct type 
Engraving of Autumnal or Boston Marrow from the
19th century showing original form

The next month he forwarded the name Autumnal Marrow along with a wood cut to various farm and garden publications. 

According to James J. H. Gregory the famous seedsman from who specialized in squash, founder of the Marblehead Seed Company, and introducer of Hubbard squash, Boston Marrow was originally a small squash  weighing 5 or 6 pounds, fine grained and dry, with an excellent flavor.

There is no further evidence to back up this story, and maxima type squashes were not recognized as being grown by Indians in  North America  until the early 20th century. However maxima squash were known to have been brought to New England at Marblehead and likely other ports in the 18th century, and Hubbard type squash were  in Marblehead by 1798. Given the history of maxima squash,  it is entirely possible that squash of this type had come in to the Indian's possession by 1831. That authorities might not have been aware of what varieties Indians were growing is not surprising, especially in the Northeast. To state that Indians did not and do not advertise their varieties today is an understatement.

Precisely how the Autumnal Marrow developed in to its larger form is unclear; according to Gregory "marketmen found that by crossing with the African and South American varieties, they could increase the size of the original Marrow,” and  from what I can glean, apparently keep its basic form while compromising the quality of the texture and flavor.

Gregory indicates there were  at least three types; a large form with a green tip being “mongrel variety” a medium size, both of which were not of great quality, and the original type which tended to be more commonly found from the original stock around Marblehead, later ripening, and presumably sold by his seed company. The squash my friend gave me had a feature that no proper Bostonian squash would admit to having: a neck. While from the neck down this squash looks like Boston Marrow, clearly it had morphed to a new form that was incorrect. I looked at the Seed Savers Exchange catalog and sure enough there was a picture of Boston Marrows with a neck. A quick check with Baker Creek Seeds revealed the same source of seed and thus an incorrect offering.

When my farmer friend gave me the Boston Marrow I immediately declared that its form was wrong. I didn’t remember growing Boston Marrow thirteen years ago with anything resembling a neck—my recollection was of a 15 lb squash just like the picture in the engraving. Other fruit I had seen grown in more fertile soil were thirty pounds, yet the form was correct. They may have had a bit more taper at the stem end than I recall and certainly nothing like I am presently seeing. At that time I didn’t keep growing Boston Marrow because while it was rare, it was still available commercially in  handful of catalogs. Now it is having  a revival, enjoying a bit of fame, being included in Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, making it a particularly important variety to conserve and hopefully as accurately as possible.

As early as 1856 an author in the Country Gentleman magazine was decrying the variability of Boston Marrow and that from the variety of fruits exhibited people were not saving seed properly. It would seem then based on the Boston Marrow’s history that there has always been some variability, and like all Hubbards there’s a pronounced taper at the stem end, and in some types, the taper is a bit more exaggerated though rarely forming a distinct neck.

There is then the question of which type of Boston Marrow are we talking about? 

Photo from 1899   Appears to be the smaller type   Notice the thick stem 
Photo from late 19th century trial.
Notice the summer squash next to it ...
this may be the smaller size marrow

The type I am familiar with, and  believe  has been exclusively in  circulation for the last couple of decades, is the larger, less firm and sweet fleshed type, not the original introduction. Hopefully there’s some people out there who have been saving and selecting for the proper type. Now  I’m on the prowl for some of that seed to help insure that this variety continue to be properly preserved and that the commercial sources can offer something closer to one of the original types. And then there's the possibility that the true Autumnal Marrow is kicking around somewhere.

 Boston Marrow photo around 1935  Squash is less red in the original photo
Photo from the Cucurbits of NY in 1935. Still looking good! 

Lawrence Davis-Hollander is an ethnobotanist, plantsmen and gardener, former director and founder of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, and currently a principal of DandelionGardening ArtsHe's an expert on heirloom vegetables, and a seed preservationist with an avid interest in herbs, spices, food, cooking, kitchen and ornamental gardens. His newest project revolves around sacred tobacco and its redistribution to native peoples. You can find him on .

Heirloom Tomatoes: Are They Really Heirloom?

 A photo of Lawrence Davis-HollanderLet’s be clear. I love heirloom tomatoes.

 I may raise the hackles of some heirloom seed purveyors by telling you that there is a great deal of misrepresentation out there in the heirloom tomato world. Much of it is not on purpose.

 Not every variety called an heirloom tomato is an heirloom tomato. Many varieties featured in seed catalogs are actually new intentional creations or chance hybridizations that have been selected and stabilized. They are not old—they are not heirlooms. Meaning that they have not been handed down for generations, nor do they have some historic association. 

 Some catalogs are more revealing than others about the history of the variety, and often they don’t know much about the origination of the seed themselves.  As heirloom tomatoes have become increasing popular many avid gardeners and seed savers have been playing with crosses to create new varieties and some claim them to be chance discoveries from King Tut’s Tomb, to Grandma’s Tilly’s garden. Sometimes people simply don’t remember where they got  variety and give it their own name.  In some cases names have been purposely changed by individual or companies to make you think its really an heirloom or to come up with a more marketable name.  A legitimate heirloom may have been saved independently in five different locations and ends up with five different names. So we have deception, memory loss, history loss, and renaming as factors to add confusion to the understanding of what is an authentic heirloom

Most people could care less about this. Nor do they need to care. It is nice to know what you are talking about and not promote inaccurate information, yet for the average gardener, taste and looks are at the top of the list. Dedicated seed savers and food historians may be prepared to exchange  blows over this topic

Many varieties of tomatoes, but are they heirlooms?What is an heirloom?  Right away you are in somewhat ill-defined territory. There is not an official registry as with canine breeds for  what constitutes an “official” heirloom.

Traditionally an heirloom has been handed down in a family or community for two or three generations or more. The seed may have originated in a catalog, or may predate the advent of seed catalogs in the early 19th century. A variety could have for example been brought to Spain from Mexico by the Spanish, traveled through Europe, selected and reselected over the years and brought to the United States by an Italian immigrant 200 years later. An heirloom should predate the widespread advent of hybrid tomatoes in the middle of the 20th century, making a general definition of an heirloom tomato a variety that is older than 60 years at this point.

This is a moving target because we have to keep backdating the definition. Now if someone during the last thirty years created an heirloom type tomato as for example Tom Wagner did with his famous Green Zebra tomato, in another thirty years would that then be an heirloom?  Good question.  In the example of Green Zebra most people assume it is an heirloom because it looks like a heirloom. Even Scientific American got that  wrong.

There are a host of true heirlooms out there, as well as varieties I term historic. Historic varieties are those for which we generally have a written documentation whether from a seed trial, seed catalog, diary, gardening manual etc.

 When you look at some seed catalogs, or for example the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook, the list of [heirloom] tomatoes can be voluminous. Heirloom tomatoes come in a very wide array of sizes, shapes, and colors.  If you really want a true heirloom tomato read the descriptions carefully, and hope they are honest. If you are growing for a history museum make sure you do your research. If you just want a different looking and [hopefully] good tasting tomato then go ahead, buy what looks good and have fun.

Photo credit: Cline 

Lawrence Davis-Hollander is an ethnobotanist, plantsmen and gardener, former director and founder of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, and currently a principal of DandelionGardening ArtsHe's an expert on heirloom vegetables, and a seed preservationist with an avid interest in herbs, spices, food, cooking, kitchen and ornamental gardens. His newest project revolves around sacred tobacco and its redistribution to native peoples. You can find him on .

Heirloom Tomatoes for the Season’s End

A photo of Lawrence Davis-HollanderI ate the last of my garden tomatoes in 2010 on the fifth of November. Now that may not seem so extraordinary if you live in Alabama and if you live in western MA that is very unusual.  We had our first frost at my house on November 2. We also had our second and third immediately following. Some  of the last tomatoes were Lambert’s General Grant, a fairly rare heirloom variety, large and red, well formed, with very good taste, much like the old Jersey tomatoes. Now this wasn’t a tomato I picked fully green and left on the window sill or in a paper bag to ripen.  It was a tomato picked with a fair amount of ripeness, showing plenty of color and it kept for several weeks.   Which means I picked it in early October, already an aberration for growing tomatoes in Zone 5. Normally we can expect a frost here around September 22. In recent years  we’ve gotten as far as Oct 6 or 11. For the past thirty years I’ve been paying attention it is only  recently that first frosts have occurred so late. Surely this November frost must be a record. I don’t know if this is another example of global warming and many gardeners have observed and speculated upon this. It is the latest frost I’ve seen in forty gardening years.

 We had a number of  different frost warnings after the beginning of October so I picked several batches of tomatoes that were close to ripening, only to have the frost pass us by.  Along with General Grant I was still picking Trucker’s Favorite, Indian Moon, Eva Purple Ball, and a couple of Russian Blacks that were still hanging on plus lots of paste tomatoes.  Indian Moon is my favorite orange tomato, eight ounce size,  fairly globular, supposedly of Navajo Indian origin, and very tasty for an orange tomato. Earl of Edgecomb is similar.  I’ve heard that Indian Moon is now available commercially. Look for it.

All through October I was eating more or less vine ripened tomatoes  along with  accumulating bowlfuls of paste tomatoes.   I had to keep a close watch on all the varieties as sooner some would begin to mold or collapse from the inside with rot. Generally however most of the kept well for weeks at room temperature, especially the paste tomatoes. I’m always amazed how long tomatoes can keep if unblemished.  This was simply a waiting game of per centages.  I wanted to keep eating fresh tomatoes throughout October  and in doing so I lost some to rot, and gained a long season of eating pleasures. My unproven theory here is that since we had a very dry year for our region of the Northeast, verging on drought for most of the summer, and the tomatoes had less moisture, they were able to be more rot resistant.

In any case many of the paste types will keep fresh much longer due to their higher solids content and lower moisture content, which is why they are more efficient to use when making tomato sauce. As usual I was growing a few odd and rare varieties. One was Purple Pear, a medium size pink pear, Northampton Italian plum, a long tapering “carrot type” tomato—in this case from Northampton, MA. These are typically late ripening, very meaty with very few seeds and sometimes green unripe shoulders. While you won’t find this variety in a catalog you certainly can find versions of  these long tapering paste types. The last paste variety  I grew was one which I suspect may have been selected from the carrot type tomatoes but is much fatter and a little less elongated, called Berkshire Polish.  These tomatoes literally came over “on the boat” in someone’s grandfather’s pockets from Poland early in the century. Of course it was at least the second transatlantic trip for that variety, having originated somewhere in the Americas. Imagine the value those seeds had in order  to be considered valuable enough to carry with you on the long journey in steerage. That’s why they call them heirlooms. 

Lawrence Davis-Hollander is an ethnobotanist, plantsmen and gardener, former director and founder of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, and currently a principal of DandelionGardening ArtsHe's an expert on heirloom vegetables, and a seed preservationist with an avid interest in herbs, spices, food, cooking, kitchen and ornamental gardens. His newest project revolves around sacred tobacco and its redistribution to native peoples. You can find him on .

Roses, Bees and Cows on My Plate

A photo of Lawrence Davis-HollanderCombining honeycomb and cheese is not a novel idea and a quick perusal of the internet shows this to be the case, although I’m surprised there aren’t a lot more recipes for it.  A delightful combination of flavors and textures makes this dish well worth trying. Really  it is what you call a serving suggestion as opposed to a recipe.

Unless you’re raising bees honeycomb is somewhat of a luxury item costing $16-18 a pound. Usually it comes in squares cut from the frames or in preformed rounds that are filled by the bees in the hives and the resultant circular comb placed in round plastic containers for sale.

This recipe will astonish your palate, and whether that is a good or bad thing is your choice.  I insist you try it at least once in your life.  Buying local honey comb and cheese is a nice way to support your nearby farmers.

 I selected a sharp regional cheddar, in this case from Grafton Vermont and made less than quarter inch thick slices.   I cut out individual small wedges of the honeycomb and plated them. Alternatively if serving at a party you would plate the entire round or square. Cover the comb with a single layer of cheese. Then drizzle a small amount of rose water over the entire assemblage.  I think you need a cheese combination that creates contrast with the honeycomb—a hard cheese with sharp and/or salty flavors, although other combinations could work well.


 Observe the reaction.

This dish literally floored my 13-year-old (he fell on the floor). After recovering from the initial shock he wanted more, as did the 9-year-old. Rose flavor is not something most of us are used to, unless you come from eastern Europe and points east. The rose water I purchased originated in Lebanon, and seems fairly potent, listing concentrated rose water and “natural” rose flavors.

The second ingredient could be suspicious because rose flavor can be derived from a number of plants containing geraniol particularly grasses including citronella (Cymbopogon nardus and Cymbopogon winterianus) and palmarosa (Cymbopogon martinii) and still be considered natural. While Lebanon is a minor producer of rose oil and related products when compared to Bulgaria and Turkey, who command 80-90% of the world market, nevertheless Lebanon is still a producer and this rose water could be pure rose. Attempts to email the company were blocked. Go figure. While many species of rose yield rose oil, as is evident from inhaling any heirloom rose and a few modern varieties, most rose oil is produced from Rosa damascena, the Damask Rose, sometimes called the oil rose. 

I suggest serving this as a dessert or a precursor to dessert at the end of the meal.  Or depending on your meal it could be served in between courses.

Lawrence Davis-Hollander is an ethnobotanist, plantsmen and gardener, former director and founder of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, and currently a principal of DandelionGardening ArtsHe's an expert on heirloom vegetables, and a seed preservationist with an avid interest in herbs, spices, food, cooking, kitchen and ornamental gardens. His newest project revolves around sacred tobacco and its redistribution to native peoples. You can find him on .