In the Garden:
Get your fill of the pungent taste and garlicky aroma of ramps during their short spring season.
Ramps: A Rite of Spring in the Mountains
It's ramp season here in the mountains, a time for celebrating these ephemeral members of the onion family. There are festivals, dinners, cook-offs, tastings, and fundraisers in communities all along the Appalachians and beyond. What is it about ramps that inspires such enthusiasm? After all, these aren't sweet, juicy strawberries or the season's first ripe tomatoes. These are pungent shoots with a garlicky aroma that lingers for days around the people who eat them -- an aroma so strong that in times past teachers sent especially odoriferous kids home from school for a few days rather than suffer their presence in crowded schoolhouses. Ramps aren't just a food, they're a rite of spring in the mountains.
What Are Ramps?
Also called wild leeks, ramps (Allium tricoccum) grow wild in eastern deciduous forests from northern Georgia to Canada. Like other spring ephemerals, ramps emerge in early spring and grow rapidly, then their foliage wilts and dies back in early summer when the trees leaf out and the forest canopy grows dense. Historically, they were one of the first fresh vegetables enjoyed after a long winter of dried and preserved foods and were considered a tonic that cleansed the body of toxins. Festivals celebrating ramps were as much festivals celebrating the arrival of spring and the upcoming season of bounty.
Ramps emerge from the forest floor as rolled-up leaves, quickly maturing to flat, rubbery, olive green leaves up to 2 inches wide and 8 inches long, similar to the leaves of lily of the valley. One sniff will let you know which you're dealing with: If you smell onions, you've got ramps. Like wildflowers, they often occur in large patches of hundreds to thousands of plants.
Harvesting ramps from local forests is a long-standing tradition in mountain communities. When the demand was limited to the region's sparse inhabitants, the supply was sufficient and harvest was sustainable. But this humble plant is growing in popularity nationwide and has entered the gourmet marketplace. Sure signs of ramps' coming of age are an article about them in The New York Times last April and a recipe for pickled ramps in last month's Martha Stewart Living magazine.
People are rushing to fill the growing demand, digging up entire colonies and leaving few bulbs behind to repopulate the area. In 2002 the Great Smoky Mountains National Park banned the harvesting of ramps citing sharp decline in populations, especially at readily accessible places within the park. Ramps may still be harvested from the surrounding national forest.
Origins of the Name
Explanations vary on the source of the name ramps. Some believe it comes from the British term "ramson," or son of Ram, since a similar plant appears in the British Isles during the sign of Aries, the Ram, on the zodiac calendar. Others say it's derived from the Old English word for wild garlic: "hramsa." Or the name may come from a somewhat similar though unrelated plant, the rampion.
Settlers were wise to eat ramps. Like other members of the onion family, they are a good source of vitamin C, a nutrient that was lacking in the settlers' winter diets. Native Americans used preparations of ramps to treat colds, coughs, and bee stings. More recently, ramps have been shown to contain substances helpful in treating high blood pressure and lowering cholesterol.
It used to be that fruits and vegetables had distinct seasons. People eagerly anticipated the first strawberries or asparagus of the season, knowing these treats would be available for just a few weeks. Now that produce is shipped all over the world, we can get just about anything we want whenever we want it. Of course fruits and vegetables that have been harvested green and ripened artificially and/or shipped thousands of miles can't compare to just-picked produce. But still, they are available. Not ramps, though. They're around for just a few weeks each spring, and those weeks are celebrated with gusto.
Although growing in popularity nationwide, ramps are cultivated on just a few farms. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture is doing studies on the potential for ramps as a regional specialty crop, but the plant appears to have exacting requirements, which include rich, humusy, acidic soil and just the right amount of shade. Even if farmers do figure out how to grow them, it's unlikely they'll be able to extend the harvest season by much because the aboveground part of the plant dies back in early summer. Like it or not, ramps will probably remain a springtime treat.
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