spring ephemerals: a rant on ramps
(above: day lillies, Hemerocallis fulva. a great alternative to ramps)
These are the kind of springs I cherish. A slow moving spring, filled with mud, rain, and wind. Personally, I need a gradual transition into the energy of spring. Spring is the time of aries, strong and forceful just like the anthocyanin laced plants eagerly peaking out of the ground exposing their deep red first leaves. With spring we enter into the phase of wood in TCM, with focus on the liver and gallbladder, and the dominant emotions tied to those organs: anger, fear. There are very subtle changes that occur with the transformation in seasons, and very drastic changes. It's hard for me sometimes to roll with the more drastic of changes and I revel in a day like today where I can take a break from all the excitement and business of the season. On this cold brisk day, I am marveling at the snow falling on the mountain tops, thankful for a late and unexpected fire in our woodstove, and enjoying endless cups of warm tea.
But of course there is no turning back, spring is everywhere I look. Spring ephemerals, which are perennial wildflowers that come up in the early spring. They quickly bloom, seed, and disappear into dormancy as the leaves of the trees cast shade upon the forest floors. Some of my favorite spring ephemerals are trillium, trout lily, and bloodroot. One particular spring ephemeral that has gained popularity in the past ten years or so are ramps (Allium tricoccum). Ramps for me are a harmony of garlic and onion. Like most, I love the taste of ramps, but I rarely harvest ramps, if ever. Ramps, which are native to the appalachian region of North America grow in hardwood forests, and prefer damp rich soil and high elevations. Not too long ago you could find acres of ramps in the woodland forests of America, but with there rise in popularity and lack of ethical harvesting they are diminishing at alarming rates in our forests. In my experience, spots where I used see many ramps, I now see much less. Sometimes people confide in me of finding a seemingly undiscovered large swath of ramps and harvesting a few because they felt the stand was substantial, but like many of our prized slow growing woodland blooms (think american ginseng, bloodroot, and goldenseal) we simply need to stop harvesting ramps in the wild. We need to let them be to grow and regenerate, even if we stumble upon a large stand.
There are 3 ways to ethically harvest ramps ( in my humble opinion):
1. Grow your own ramps! For us in the mountains, its easy to grow ramps. Look to shade and damp earth for an ideal location.
2. Harvest springs other less famous oniony/garlickly and incredibly abundant greens. In our house we are eating day lilly (Hemerocallis fulva) tubers which are delicious and provide that strong onion flavor, and there equally delicious lilly whites. Field garlic (Allium vineale) is also popping up, which is tasty and equally abundant. And of course, our aggressive non-native friend garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), which is more than abundant, it's damn right aggressive.
3. If you find yourself on a hike in the woods and stumble open a stand of ramps and just can't help yourself, there are a couple things you can do to help our ramp friends along. When harvesting ramps, instead of pulling up the whole plant, dig in the dirt to the base of the bulb, and cut the ramp at the base leaving behind the roots in the dirt. Whenever I see a basketful of ramps at our health food store, with the roots attached, I get a slight pang in my gut. This is such a simple and easy way to keep ramps on our plates for years to come. You can also just harvest ramp tops and use them as you would scallions or garlic tops.
Each day, as my daughter and I go on our walk in the woods we are seeing the trees and shrubs bud and bloom, we are smelling mud and earth, we are tasting bitter greens, we are digging juicy roots while it's still ideal, we are making our first fresh teas of the season (ah! so thankful for mint and cleavers right now), we are marveling at the beauty of the flowers. Alas, there are many ways to connect with spring. Smell the apple blossoms, play with some dirt, listen to the peepers, and eat some garlic mustard!