When the Man Cub was only four months old, I strapped him to my chest and hiked half a mile into the forest to harvest ramps from my top secret honey hole. They were the first wild edible that I harvested with him. That reason alone would be enough to make them my favorite wild food. To put it over the top, they are delicious – combining the best flavors of both onions and garlic while adding something otherworldly that you can only get from growing in the filtered sunlight of a damp forested hillside. I love ramps (a.k.a. wild leeks). They are ephemeral, which only adds to their mystique. The little green bunny ears start to poke through the leaf litter almost as soon as the last of the snow melts and they have mostly gone to seed by the time the trees fully leaf out and cast shade upon the forest floor. Knowing the timing of when your favorite patch is ready for harvest is crucial.
There are many other ephemeral plants that can help clue you in as to when it’s time to hit up your patch of wild leeks. One such plant is Dutchman’s Breeches (. The small fringed leaves pop up first, followed soon after by the bright white and yellow flowers, which resemble a pair of breeches or pants hanging upside down. As you can see in the photo, Dutchman’s Breeches (left) and Ramps (right) grow concurrently. The ramps in this photo are still young and not quite fully mature. At this stage, they are excellent for sauteing up and serving as a side or in an omelet.
Trilium (Dicentra cucullaria) is another spring ephemeral flower that grows during this magical time of year. The trillium in this photo are not quite blooming but the flower buds are present and on the edge. I believe they were actually blooming only two days after this picture was taken. Again, you can see the young ramps in the background. Paying attention to what else is growing alongside your favorite edibles makes you more aware and tunes your internal clock. When you start to see trillium growing, it is time to visit your ramp patch.
This photo of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) was taken during the same morning walk as the previous pictures of trillium and Dutchman’s Breeches. Bloodroot may not always grow in the same locations as wild leeks, but their bloom does tend to correspond with when the wild leeks are ready to pick.
Wild leeks are highly sought after and often over harvested. To harvest sustainably, it is best to follow the Rule of 10: for every ten plants there are, you can harvest one. In a good patch of ramps, this rule will still yield more than enough for your own personal use. Often times, you can find entire hillsides blanketed in green. When you are lucky enough to come across such a patch, you can often smell onions in the air long before you see them. Even stand such as these are susceptible to over harvest. It can take up to seven years for a wild leek to mature from seed to plant. This is why it is crucial to leave more than enough behind, ensuring future harvests for generations to come. I only share locations of major ramp populations with those whom I trust will harvest sustainably.
Identifying ramps is fairly easy. They have two (occasionally three) oblong green leaves emerging from a central stem. This stem extends into the ground where, if you dig carefully, you can find a white bulb. Sometimes the stems may appear red, as in the photo to the right. Once you add in the unmistakable onion/garlic smell, it is difficult to mistake them for anything else. I tend to only harvest one leaf from each plant, leaving the bulb and the other leaf behind. This ensures that the plant will be able to go on to flower and produce seeds. The only time I harvest the bulb is if I were to make pickled ramps.
One of my favorite ways to eat ramps is also one of the easiest. Chop up a handful of ramp greens and stir them into a pan full of scrambled eggs. Toss on some cheddar cheese and serve on buttered toast for an open faced breakfast sandwich.