This 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 Arts. He'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 Google+.