At Greene County’s 29th Annual Ramp Festival on a sunny Saturday last April, a party atmosphere was in full swing with crafters, wood carvers, metal workers and a band. But the main draw were about 15 vendors selling ramp chili, ramp sausage, ramp cookies, ramp mints, ramp butter, ramp wine, ramp hardtack, ramp pancakes, ramp coleslaw… A bag of ramps cost $7.
“Deep-fried ramps are the biggie,” volunteer Connie Ammons said. The next most popular dish is ramp potato soup.
At another ramp festival a few miles away over the West Virginia border, I ate ramp fritters so airy and delicious I had to resist eating the entire tray.
“We dug 34 bushels for the festival,” said one Washington County vendor at the Pennsylvania venue.
I can feel Russ Cohen flinch.
“I am a conscientious objector to chefs and the foodie world,” Cohen said. He’s foraged in New England for 40 years and said ramps have been overharvested. The number one problem are “foodies with fat wallets”—those who collect ramps with a goldrush mentality, pulling up hundreds of pounds, obliterating entire patches. “Ramps are now gone from places they used to grow,” he said.
In 2013, New York Magazine offered a foodie ramp timeline: In 1982, New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton first mentioned a Finger Lakes organic farmer who harvested ramps. A year later, Gourmet magazine ran recipes for ramp tart and ramp grits souffle. By 1992, Chanterelle, a fancy New York City restaurant, had ramps on the menu; other restaurants followed, including Capsouto Freres, Savoy and Gramercy Tavern. In 2007, ramps appeared in farmers markets and, according to the magazine, “customers argue over the last few bunches.”
But we Appalachians aren’t foodies with fat wallets; we’ve celebrated the ramp for years, way before the East Coast chefs caught on. Thirty years ago, when I discovered a hillside of ramps on our western Pennsylvania farm—don’t tell the poachers—my New York City friends hadn’t heard of the wild leek. For 81 years, Richwood, W.Va., has held its “Feast of the Ransom” (ransom, wild leek and wild garlic are other names for ramps) claiming their festival is the oldest in the state and calling themselves the “Ramp Capital of the World.” Earlier still, European colonists harvested ramps, and “for that matter,” said botanist and Penn State ramp expert Eric Burkhart, “Native Americans got to it way before any of us.” The American Indian Diet and Health project website claims the Cherokee treated earaches with ramp juice, the Objibwa dried and stored ramps and used them to induce vomiting and the Iroquois treated intestinal worms with the plant. Russ Cohen said Winooski, Vt., may have gotten its name from the Abenaki word for onion or leeks, which grew along the river there, and the name Chicago might be the Menominee word for ramps: shika’ko.
Native Americans are said to have considered ramps a “spring tonic,” cleansing the blood after a long winter of no fresh produce. Others claim ramps have more vitamin C than an orange, contain antioxidants, are an antibiotic, can be used as a poultice for bee stings, and relieve the common cold. But Burkhart said no formal studies have confirmed any of that. Ramps simply taste good.
On our farm, ramps (Allium tricoccum) poke up through dead leaves in the woods in late March or early April. Along with trillium, spring beauty, common blue violet, and other perennial woodland plants, ramps share the lovely title of being called “a spring ephemeral,” the first plants to emerge in spring. Ramps range from Georgia to Canada, can be found under trees such as tulip, maple, basswood and oak, grow in communities or clumps, and may be surrounded by companion plants such as yellow trout lily, wood nettle, ginger, maidenhair fern, and black and blue cohosh.
Ramps have a slightly bulbous root similar to a scallion, and two to three oblong green leaves. In his book, “How to Take a Leek in the Woods,” Brian Cool surmised that the broader the leaves, the bigger the bulbs. To me, the leaves resemble lily of the valley, and until 30 years ago ramps were part of the lily family, but Burkhart called that “outdated taxonomy.” Ramps are now considered a member of the amaryllis family.
As spring turns toward summer and the tree canopy fills in, ramp leaves disappear, and by June my hillside has hardly a remnant. Though the plant does send up tiny white flowers that produce black seeds, similar to a chive, by mid-summer, one would hardly know ramps had been there at all.
Many foragers sauté ramps with morels as they emerge at about the same time. But foraging can be tricky, and “you have to know what you’re harvesting,” Burkhart said. He mentioned false hellebore, which can grow intermixed with ramps. The two can be confused and false hellebore can “stop your heart. If you’re not getting that pungent, stank smell one slice into the bulb you need a second opinion.”
My ramps have deep red stems, but others have green, and some foragers believe one is male and one female. “Digger’s mythology,” Burkhart said, explaining that ramps are hermaphrodites—both male and female. Scientists don’t yet understand the color differences, but the topic is being researched at Penn State. With funding from Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Burkhart and his team are studying ramps’ phytochemistry, sustainability and supply chain. He wants to know where ramps come from, why people use them and the price in different markets, among other subjects.
Burkhart agreed with Cohen that “ramps have exploded in popularity in the last 10 years,” and as a result, sustainability is a big subject with these little plants. Ramps are already deemed threatened in Quebec, and, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are of “special concern” in Maine and Rhode Island. Ramp harvesting was banned in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee in 2004. I have so many ramps spreading in a hollow behind our tractor shed I didn’t realize they needed protection. But just down the road from us in Westmoreland County, Burkhart told me foragers have wiped out two-thirds of a slope. “Every time we go there you can see a receding line of ramps going up the canyon walls,” he said. “They’re getting hammered.” In Pennsylvania overall, the plant is considered “secure,” but Burkhart said “the Laurel Highlands are among the hotspots in the state and for that reason there is some concern.” (A permit is required in Pennsylvania to pick ramps on public lands, for personal use only; commercial digging is outlawed.) “If we aren’t careful, in 20–30 years this slow growing plant [it takes 4–5 years for the plant to develop a bulb worth harvesting] will be gone,” Burkhart said. “Ramps are not as sustainable as one might think.”
Sustainable digging means different things to different people. Cohen believes one need not dig up the entire plant to enjoy eating ramps. “Consider shifting the harvest to the leaves only,” he said, taking one leaf from each plant. Burkhart prefers thinning the plant. Everyone said that rotating harvest sites is essential to the plant’s survival.
Burkhart concurred that chefs are driving ramp hysteria, especially in early spring as they want to be the first to have ramps on the menu. That forces people to harvest smaller plants that weigh less, and since ramps are purchased by the pound, more ramps are harvested. “In mid-March, it takes about 500 plants to make a pound, but a few weeks later that number drops to 100–150,” Burkhart said.
Deer don’t care for the plant, but a small fly does. The allium leafminer, an invasive insect from either Europe or Turkey, eats plants in the allium family. First discovered in Lancaster County in 2015, the pest is now found in five states. (It has not reached western Pennsylvania yet.) Changes to the ecosystem are an issue also, such as the loss of the ash tree due to the emerald ash borer. When ashes fall, holes are left in the overstory, allowing invasive plants to crowd out natives. But ultimately people are the biggest threat, Burkhart said, and if they want to save the ramp: “practice restraint.”
Years ago, I’d considered driving some of my ramps to New York City, but I never did. One reason is they’re difficult to dig. I’ve always used a large shovel, but some use a pick ax, which I well understand. Others recommend a more delicate approach, such as a digging knife, a hand trowel or a fork so as not to disturb the root system of neighboring plants. After harvesting, experts say to cover the hole with leaves to discourage invasive species. I’ll be extra careful to do that now that I understand ramp vulnerability in my area.
One can grow ramps at home. A few years ago, my friend, Alice, and I dug some ramps on my property and she transplanted them on hers. They’ve multiplied. She’s planted ramp seeds also. She hasn’t harvested any yet, preferring to let them spread. In the meantime, she likes ramps so much she buys them at the co-op. “Ramps make any grilled meat, fish or vegetable heavenly,” she said. A favorite recipe of hers is ramp chimichurri.
This is my favorite ramp recipe, a simple oniony broth: www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/ramp-soup-242027
“Do your homework about where ramps grow,” Burkhardt suggested. Ramps like moist soil in the deciduous forest, for example, and prefer a north-facing slope. They don’t grow well under conifers. But there are many factors that go into being a successful ramp farmer.
“It’s an exciting time for ramps,” Burkhart said. He’s pleased people have moved “away from McDonald’s toward local food stuffs,” and that they’ve recognized “the value of forest lands and developed a relationship to it.” Farm-to-table, organic, seasonal and wild foods are good to incorporate into the diet, he said. “We just have to dig them sustainably.”
“Some say ramps are a fad,” Burkhart said, “but I don’t think they’re going