Ramps: The Wild Leek of Appalachia

Ramps, (Allium tricoccum or Allium tricoccum var. burdickii, Alliaceae), often referred to as wild leeks, are native to the Appalachian mountain area in eastern North America and found growing in the rich, moist deciduous forest floors of North America. Ramps are often found growing in patches tucked away in cool, shady forests as far north as Canada, west to Missouri, and south to North Carolina.

Usually in late March to early April, new leaves sprout from the perennial bulb. Seasonally, ramp leaves begin to die back, with a flower stalk emerging in late May. The active growth cycle takes place for only a few weeks, when the plants emerge and the forest tree canopy closes. The flower blooms in June and the seeds mature atop a leafless stalk, shattering to the ground for germination near the mother plant. In my observation, the seed stalks closely resemble those of the Garlic Chive.

The ramp bulb is similar to that of a scallion, but also features flat, broad leaves. The word ramp is derived from “rams,” or “ramson,” first mentioned in English print in 1530, named after the “ramson,” or son of Ram, the spring buck, which represents the months of March and April.  Ramps are recorded as having been used by the early English immigrants of the southern Appalachian Mountains. Considered a springtime delicacy, festivals and events herald their harvest and celebrate their pungent addition to culinary creations.

One of the first emerging plants in the spring, ramps traditionally are consumed as a first seasonal ‘green.’ Once nourished Native Americans, ramps also provided an excellent source of Vitamin C that protected Appalachian settlers from disease. For this reason, they are considered a spring tonic, after long winter months of a diet lacking in fresh fruits and vegetables. Similar to spring onions, but with a well-deserved reputation for a strong garlic-like aroma, ramps are most often prepared sliced potatoes or scrambled eggs, fried in butter. Leeks may be substituted raw or cooked, in any recipe calling for scallions or leeks. Also used as an ingredient in other dishes such as soups, casseroles, rice dishes, pancakes, and hamburgers, ramps can be pickled or dried for use later in the year.

The leaves are a milder flavor than the ramp bulbs, and traditionally used chopped, along with the bulbs in various dishes. Ramps can also be preserved by being chopped and frozen, by chopping about half of the length of the leaves, air-drying them for a few hours, then freezing the chopped leaves in a well-sealed freezer container, to be used as a seasoning.

In order to meet the rising demand for ramps, while conserving native plant population, commercial cultivation practices are being developed. The goal is the ability to harvest ramps from concentrated, accessible plantings, which would benefit various ramp festival participants, chefs, and consumers, while creating a new marketable product for commercial growers. A collaborative effort by the Department of Horticultural Science at North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services – Plant Industry Division, resulted in a series of studies that were conducted, underwritten by the Golden Leaf Foundation.

More info:

Growing Ramps (leaflet)

Cultivating Ramps Commercially

Ramp Sources of Seeds/Bulbs and Festivals

Ramps Recipes

Southern Food Recipes

More About Ramps

 

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