spring ephemerals: a rant on ramps
(above: day lillies, Hemerocallis fulva. a great alternative to ramps)
This is a post on ramps that I posted last spring, that feels even more important this spring to share. In the past few years, I've seen these old friends disrespected and pillaged. When I learned from the old timers, they taught me to harvest the wild leeks as they called them in the mid to late spring when the bulbs were full, large, and ripe. Now, ramps are being harvested earlier and earlier every spring and not just by old timers or foragers, but by folks who are trying to make a profit out of this native wild plant. On my walks in the woods, I am seeing large stands dwindle, and it's not just the ramps. As more and more begin to forage, I am seeing old friends less and less.
Spring ephemerals, 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 upon a stand of ramps and just can't help yourself, there are a couple things you can do to help our ramp friends along. You can simply harvest only the ramp tops and use them as you would scallions or garlic tops. Or when harvesting ramps, instead of pulling up the whole plant roots and all, dig in the dirt to the base of the bulb, and cut the ramp at above the base, leaving behind the roots in the dirt. Whenever I see a basket full 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.
Let us remember the ways of the honorable harvest:
Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them. Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life. Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer. Never take the first. Never take the last. Take only what you need. Take only that which is given. Never take more than half. Leave some for others. Harvest in a way that minimizes harm. Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken. Share. Give thanks for what you have been given. Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken. Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.
-Robin Wall Kimmerer