These pungent cousins of leeks are a delicacy to be enjoyed sparingly in spring.

October 21, 2013

I first tasted ramps a couple of years ago when a friend presented me with a bunch she had bought at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City.

“You’ll love these,” she said as she handed me a strong-smelling cluster of leafy green stalks, wrapped in paper like a precious bouquet. “Think of them as garlicky spring onions.”

She was right. I did love them. I added finely chopped ramps to risotto, folded them into scrambled eggs, and made pesto. I even went to a dinner at a local restaurant in which every course featured the pungent green. I was hooked.

The only problem was getting more. Allium tricoccum, better known as ramps or wild leeks, are available at farmers’ markets for just a few weeks in early spring, and are eagerly snapped up by chefs and home cooks alike. Once available only to savvy foragers on the East Coast, these native plants have become a foodie sensation across the country.

Ramps’ current popularity amuses some longtime fans of the vegetable. “In recent history, hunters and fishermen ate most of the ramps,” says Jeanine Davis, an associate professor of horticultural science at North Carolina State University, who has been studying ramps since 1997. “When my husband and his friends went trout fishing in early spring, they picked ramps, fried them up with potatoes and eggs, and ate them morning, noon, and night. Unfortunately, ramps have a notorious smell that can emanate from your skin, so he’d have to sleep on the couch for several days after he got back.”

But even before sportsmen discovered them, early settlers and Native Americans treasured ramps as a spring tonic, something healthy and green to eat after months of potatoes and turnips. Ramps grow in rich, moist forest areas, in a region stretching from north Georgia to Canada, and appear in very early spring, just after the snow has melted. For many people, ramps were the only green they would be able to harvest for weeks, maybe months. Ramp festivals are still held in many parts of the South.

Even today, most of the ramps available for sale in the United States are wild, gathered by commercial foragers who can earn serious money selling them to restaurants and at farmers’ markets for up to $12 a pound. And it’s that lucrative new market that worries plant specialists like Davis.

“There is concern about overharvesting,” she says. “People go into the woods with picks and garbage bags and clear out an entire area.” In fact, ramps are listed as a plant of special concern in several states.

In Quebec, where ramps are known as ail des bois (garlic of the woods), the Environment Department listed the plant as a “vulnerable” species more than 15 years ago, the victim of encroaching suburban development and overharvesting. Private pickers are still allowed to forage for their own consumption, but no more than 50 plants per person per year, and only outside protected zones. Sales are prohibited.

“Years ago, l’ail des bois seemed to grow everywhere,” says Susan Semenak, author of Market Chronicles, a book about Montreal’s famed farmers’ market, Marché Jean-Talon. “Nowadays, a jar of homemade pickled ail des bois or a handful of fresh leaves for salad are rare treasures, gifts from somebody with a forager in the family experienced enough to know the last few remaining spots.”

Hoping to avoid a similar situation in the United States, plant enthusiasts like Davis and the Smoky Mountain Native Plant Association are encouraging the commercial cultivation of ramps. And they want foragers to harvest the plants more responsibly, leaving some of the immature bulbs rather than digging up the whole clump, so the plant can continue to grow, a sustainable method long used by the Cherokee.

Still, the situation isn’t a crisis—yet. Most commercial foragers stick to areas that are easy to reach, says Roy Reehil, president of the Forager Press and the Central Adirondack Search and Rescue Team. “I don’t really see a lot of evidence of overharvesting in the more remote places I go to.”

In the end, it’s a delicate balancing act, says Davis. “On the one hand, we want to encourage people to appreciate and enjoy this wild, native plant,” she says. “On the other hand, we don’t want to encourage wiping out wild populations of the plant.”

As for me, I’m thinking of supplementing my farmers’ market supply of ramps with my own crop. It seems like the least I can do to preserve this precious—and delicious—American original.