If you have any interest in native wild foods you’ve heard of ramps. Ramps, also known as wild leeks (in North Carolina, our native species is Allium tricoccum), are often found growing near other forest gems like bloodroot, trillium, and lady’s slipper. There’s something about these rare plants growing all together in the early spring that is so enlightening. When you stumble upon a patch of them it’s like the forest has told you a secret - and what a special secret that is.
This small forest allium has hit center stage in restaurants, foraging tours and even for everyday hikers that stumble upon them and take a few home for, perhaps, a pesto dinner. They’re harvested for (more often than not) their bulbs, whose flavor shares that of garlic or onion, and their leaves are a plus with a milder flavor and gorgeous green color. Everyone is talking about ramps, especially in the early spring.
Ramps have historically served an important role in Appalachian and Indigenous diets in the eastern US holding both culinary and medicinal value. With the rise in popularity of wild foods throughout the tourism and restaurant industries, ramps have become harder and harder to find. The popular nature and story of ramps have had a hugely detrimental effect on their population. They are widely overharvested and due to their slow growing nature, many wild ramp stands that once coated the north facing mountain slopes from Georgia to Canada have been completely decimated.
Ramp seeds germinate in six months to a year depending on when they’re planted and they only begin to flower (and therefore produce seed) seven years later. Sustainable harvesting practices for a plant this slow growing looks like taking one in twenty five plants. Even better would be taking one leaf from less than five percent of the plants present and leaving the other leaf to photosynthesise and not touching the bulb at all. It’s also important to only harvest from a patch every five to ten years. And when we’re talking about wild harvesting- well- even if you haven’t been there in five years, how can you know someone else hasn’t? I mean the more you learn about the patterns of ramps the more important it becomes to save this amazing allium from extinction.
What Can We Do?
Luckily for us, ramps are able to be cultivated. Yes, in your very own gardens. And due to the problematic nature of overharvesting, cultivating rare forest understory plants has never seemed like a better option than it does right now. You’ll be growing these plants not only to tend and steward your own little patch and harvest a leaf or two in the spring for your culinary uses, but also to honor the wild populations that once existed in abundance - perhaps to repopulate some of what once grew in the forests around you. But we’ll get into that a little later.
Choosing a Location
Ramps are picky about their habitat. They prefer moist, fertile soil under deciduous trees (the leaf mulch being an important part of that) and are often found alongside rivers or streams. A spring ephemeral, ramps take advantage of the sunlight falling through the forest canopy before the trees leaf out, storing energy for the rest of the year. Their foliage doesn’t last very long, staying green for about a month before turning yellow and then disappearing for the year. Come July, the root system will put up a cluster of white flowers, which will then turn to shiny black seed in September.
When planting, choose a spot under a stand of beech, birch, sugar maple, or poplar trees. If this is not an option, you can also set up a shade cloth over your garden bed. Your soil should be rich, moist, and high in organic matter. As with many seeds, soil moisture is an important variable to germination and seedling survival rates. Additionally, in order to cultivate a successful ramp stand, moisture levels must be maintained year round, not just during the growing season.
Cultivating Ramps from Seed
Although ramp seeds can be planted at any point that the ground is not frozen, we can take a page from nature’s book and say that because the seeds are produced in late summer/early autumn, that is the appropriate planting time. Sowing seeds at this time of year can help speed up the germination process as well. After the seed is sown, it requires a warm, moist period before a cold period to break the internal dormancy, allowing the seed to germinate. Sometimes there isn’t a long enough warm period before winter which means the plants will germinate in the second spring, assuming they haven’t been eaten by animals.
Ramps require a high calcium level and a proper pH of 5.5 for success. An annual application of bone meal, argonite, or gypsum will keep calcium levels high. Proper shading is also essential. If you have access to a forested area and want to recreate a natural environment for them, growing ramps under deciduous trees is fantastic. If you don’t have a forest area do not fret! A 30% shade cloth has been shown to have the highest seedling emergence rate according to the United Plant Savers.
To plant, the soil should be raked to create a finely mixed seed bed. Sow your seeds thinly about four to six inches apart on top of the ground, pressing them into the soil gently. Your last step is to cover the seeds with several inches of hardwood leaf mulch. The leaves of deciduous trees are the best mulch for ramps, mimicking their natural environment. The mulch works to retain heat and moisture during both the hottest and coldest parts of the year and is essential to the successful cultivation of ramps. Additionally, the planting areas can be covered in chicken wire to prevent squirrels from digging up your plants.
Seed to leaf harvest can take about four years. For bulb harvest, it’ll take 5 to 7 years. It’s a good idea to save and reseed once you have an established patch and expand so that you can follow the ten year rule. Create many patches in your garden to balance the preservation of this amazing plant alongside your harvesting goals.
Happy ramp season!
Written by Hannah Gibbons