When ramps appear in Pennsylvania and throughout the Appalachian region, they are a stinking, garlic harbinger of spring.
The season lasts only a few weeks and they don’t grow fast, which makes them especially special.
The Penn State Ag Extension Company conducted a series of three-part webinars during last season’s trip. The series covers ramp identification, ramps for cultivation and how to maintain ramps.
What are ramps?
Ramp or wild leek (allium tricoccum) is a wild onion found in the eastern United States. They belong to the same genus as garlic, leeks and onions. All parts, from bulbs to leaves and flowers, are edible.
In Pennsylvania, north of I-80, they are often called leeks. South of the highway the same plant is called a ramp, says Eric Burkhart, head of the Appalachian Botany and Ethnobotany program in Penn.
Why are ramps so special?
Historically ramps have been valued because they were one of the first edible crops after a long winter.
Lunches and festivals are a tradition, especially in the Pittsburgh area.
Recently, enthusiasm for ramps has increased with the increasing number of people interested in local and seasonal food, says Catherine Pew, part of the Penn State research group.
The ramps are ephemeral. In Pennsylvania, the ramp season sometimes begins in late March. In other years, they were not seen until the end of April, says John T.J. Jackson, owner of l Fungi in Pittsburgh. The season is short.
During the pandemic, when people spent more time outdoors, interest in ramps and food extraction increased even more.
How can a ramp be identified?
There are several similar plants, some of which have poisoned humans.
Ramps smell like garlic or onions. They have bulbs. They have green or red stems. They have from one to four leaves.
Take the time to get to know the plants before foraging, Burkhart says. Follow them throughout the growing season.
For example, skunk cabbage grows in humid places where ramps bloom. This plant smells like a skunk and should not be eaten because it has compounds similar to small shards of glass, Burkhart says.
Another similar one Lily of the valleyornamental plant, poisonous.
False helleboreanother very poisonous plant, by June will grow to 3-4 feet in height, much higher than ramps.
How can you harvest responsibly?
There are concerns about over-harvesting, but some of the sustainable ways of harvesting are not ideal, Burkhart says.
One idea is to collect only the leaves, leaving the bulbs. Studies show it is no longer sustainable, he says. Removing the leaves deprives the plant of the ability to feed and grow.
A sustainable way to collect leaves is to collect just one leaf from each plant, Burkhart says. Or thin dense ramps, removing whole plants.
Harvesters for Delaware Valley Ramps take only the most mature plants with three or more leaves, says chief feed collector Steve Schwartz.
“In many cases, you can find plants from three leaves that still have a seed stalk from the previous year, which is a good sign that this is a mature plant and has been propagated in the past,” he says.
They rotate during harvest, harvesting only once per season.
How can you grow ramps?
Ramps thrive in shady places such as forests, but they still need the sun for photosynthesis.
To grow ramps at home, plant dormant bulbs in the fall or spring.
Growing ramp seeds is unpredictable because the seeds need periods of cold and warm temperature and humidity. A paper envelope made from dried seeds is not the best option, says Burkhart. The best option is to find a neighbor with a ramp who has seeds. Local ramps will be adapted to your area and should have a better chance of success.
How do you prepare ramps?
- Prepare potatoes with leeks as dinner “spring has come”.
- Fry them in butter with hosta shoots and morels.
- Eat them raw.
How to save ramps?
With such a short season and shelf life, canning keeps ramps on the menu (or in your pantry) for months.
- Take the crunchy onions of late season to make the butter.
- Chop the onions and add to the olive oil to make the filling for the pizza and obd.
- Dehydrate ramp bulbs and grind them into electricity as a condiment. Or lactofermented ramps, then dehydrated and mixed into a powder to season things from popcorn to trout.
- Make marinated ramps by fermenting in a 5 percent salt solution with wild bay leaves and pepper.
- Make ramp salt.
- Prepare a ramp pesto (which can be frozen).
- Prepare pump hummus. “There’s nothing better than mid-January, when it’s cold and unhappy outside to get some pesto out of the freezer and use it. It reminds you that spring is coming. I like it,” Schwartz says.