Ephemeral wild leeks, or ramps, bring bright splashes of green to northeastern deciduous forests in early spring.

As my anticipation of morels begins to grow unbearable, I have found a welcome diversion in ramps (Allium tricoccum). On March 29 I reported seeing ramps beginning to pop through the leaves and uncurl, their vivid green hue contrasting sharply with the brown forest floor. On Tuesday, three weeks later, I returned to the same spot to find a sweeping carpet of nearly mature, densely spaced ramps, as well as several smaller satellite colonies. That very night, they were the karpas, or spring greens, on the Passover Seder plate.

Ramps, minutes from eating!

Ithaca’s forests produce a formidable bounty of these wild leeks every April, before the canopy closes in and yellows the remaining greens. In mid-May, the now leafless ramp bulb puts out a flower stalk, which blooms in June before dropping its seeds near the base of the mother plant. Both the broad leaves and small bulb have a delicious, earthy flavor and a garlicky kick that is mellowed by cooking. On top of being delicious and versatile, they are esteemed as a vitamin and nutrient-rich spring tonic.

Ramps may still be rampant throughout the deciduous forests of Appalachia, New England, and Canada, but their numbers have declined due to overharvesting. In particular, a long tradition of ramp festivals in southern Appalachia and growing demand from chefs have stressed native populations.  A recent New York Times article, “When Digging for Ramps Goes Too Deep,” highlights this problem and cites the example of Great Smoky National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. Here, ramp harvesting was banned in 2004, after a study carried out by the park found that the only way to sustainably harvest ramps is to harvest less than 10% of a patch once every 10 years.

The case study of Great Smoky National Park reminds us that, while the land may offer a cornucopia of wild food, as foragers we must take great care to ethically harvest. The meaning of ethical harvesting varies depending on the species one is collecting, but in the case of ramps it means only picking sparingly from well-established patches.

Jenna harvests ramps from one of our patches in Ithaca.

Harvesting technique is often just as important as volume collected. In the case of the perennial ramp, I consider the ubiquitous practice of harvesting both bulb and leaf inane. Ramps are not garlic; the leaves contain the vast majority of the edible material, while the puny bulbs offer nothing superior in terms of flavor. I may occasionally dig up a few bulbs for pickling, but for fresh eating the leaves offer much more substance and a more unique texture. For this reason, I cut the mature ramp leaves at the base with garden scissors, leaving the bulb in the ground to produce new leaves next spring. This way, I can have my ramps and eat them too!