Ramps: Wild About Spring
Fairview Town Crier
Even though winter has tried its best to hold on, sending a few icy tentacles into March, Spring has finally arrived and we are all rejoicing. Springtime in the Blue Ridge is such a luxurious extravaganza of life. It always amazes me how nature waits patiently and how plants slumber in dormancy and then the cycle turns with the abundant light, rain and warmth and the whole world seems to come alive singing the praises of spring renewal. The greening of the earth awakens our spirits to new life and every one and everything seems to simply come alive as we enter yet another season of renewal and rebirth.
April and May are two of my favorite months, as morels will hopefully be popping up in the rich forest floors. Joining the choice and elusive morels are ramps (Allium tricoccum), a.k.a., “wild leeks.” Ramps are one of the most prized and one of my own favorite wild edible plants on the continent. Ramps are intricately woven into the tapestry of Appalachian history and folklore.
In early spring, ramp festivals celebrating their pungent pageant of these earthly delights arise throughout the Smokies and throughout West Virginia. Cosby, Tennessee has held the largest and one of the oldest ramp festivals in the United States since 1954. The festival has played host to as many as 30,000 visitors in years past, and has been attended by notable luminarias such as Harry Truman, Eddy Arnold, Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Minnie Pearl, and Brenda Lee.
Here in Western North Carolina, we are blessed to have such an abundance of wild ramps growing in our forests, and my hope is that we can keep this ancient spring tradition alive and healthy. A patch of ramps can carpet a whole mountain “holler.” But don’t be fooled: ramps take five to seven years to reproduce, so that sizable colony could have taken decades to form.
Given their increasing popularity, ramps are becoming a valuable commodity. Combine that with high rates of unemployment and you have a perfect recipe for overharvesting. People often indiscriminately dig up much of a hillside, leading some states like Tennessee and even a few Canadian provinces to enact severe protective measures. Remember that, like the buffalo, ginseng was once quite common. Many fear ramps are heading that way as well.
As with cultivated leeks and scallions, the whole ramp is edible, including the bulb. Recently, however, I began harvesting mostly the leaves, leaving the roots intact in the soil. That way, they can grow back, and it’s far easier anyway. I take these “green onions” and dehydrate them, chopping them up and storing them like dried chives to add to dishes throughout the year. Ramp salt and ramp butter are two other local favorites. Ramps can also be pickled, added to cornbread and used in soups and stocks — any way one would otherwise use onion or garlic.
Ramps are so pungent that many people shy away from them. But being of Sicilian stock, where garlic is a staple, I adore ramps’ rich, strong earthy flavor. I love to sauté ramps with morels and grilled asparagus or add them to omelets, soups and bread.
Ramps do have a dangerous look-alike: lily of the valley. The key difference is that lily of the valley does not smell like garlic or onions. No smell, no deal. If you’re still not sure, ASK a friend. Chances are, there’s a ramp lover nearby. Just follow your nose.
Ramps have a fascinating history with volumes of folklore surrounding these humble plants. The city of Chicago owes its name to the ramp, as the plant’s indigenous name among the local tribes was shikaakwa. Ramps once grew in abundance along the Chicago River. Today, Chicago’s ramps lead to parking garages. But the name remains.
The odor of ramps is legendary. Once an editor of West Virginia’s Richwood News Leader added ramp juice to the ink as a joke. The letters to the editor poured in. The only person who made more of a stink about it than their readership was the postmaster.
Ramps have also been revered as medicine. They are said to ward off winter ailments, and indeed, a hefty dose of vitamins, minerals, immune boosters and antioxidants as packed into each plant.
Spring is a time of joy and rebirth, and ramps are one of the many pleasures in life we have to be thankful for. Enjoy some of these wild delicacies and celebrate the gift of being alive in this season.
Roger’s Wild Things: Recipes to Make Your Heart Sing
Wild Greens Pesto (makes a good 2 cups worth)
4 cups packed 4 cups chickweed, or 4 cups wild violet leaves,or lamb’s quarters or (about 6oz)
***my favorite wild pesto is to use about 2-3 cups chickweed as a base and mix in a handful(1 cup) of violet leaves, a few wild mustard greens(either wintercress or pennsylvania bittercress) and sometimes a few dandelion greens and or/young yellow dock- some friends don’t like the mild bitter tint from either mustard, dandelion or dock so its easy to just use non bitter greens but I like to include some mild bitters flavors in my diet…
15 garlic scapes (about 3 ounces)-or one to two handfuls depending on how garlicky you like it
***also, most the time I don’t measure and just wing it adding extra plants,and flowers according to my mood and what I find- its very forgivable and malleable to creative play.
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup nuts, finely chopped (pine nuts, black or english walnuts are favorites but also use toasted sunflower or pumpkin seeds)
1 /2 to 1 cup parmesan, grated
optional- 1/4 cup wild wood sorrel or 1/ 2 fresh lemon
salt as needed
Blend nuts in food processor.You can also use a mortar and pestle-much more work but does a good job! Ive improvised on the trail using a rounded rock and creek rock pothole! Remove to a bowl. Add all ingredients and blend until pureed. Adjust seasoning as desired, adding more cheese or garlic or sorrel or lemon juice or salt. This is a mild pesto, the spiciness will depend on the mustard greens, scapes or other spicy wild herbs. Serve with thinly sliced jerusalem artichokes, whole grain crackers, freshly baked bread or use in pasta or as a condiment to a milder soup. This freezes well and is a great way to store fresh wild greens for later use.