Rooting for ramps: What foragers must do to conserve these coveted wild onions

How to Harvest Ramps Sustainably

Ramps—Allium tricoccum—are a bulb-forming perennial with two to three broad, smooth, light green leaves. A. tricoccum var. tricoccum is probably the most common variety in Minnesota and Wisconsin. This variety has the distinctive burgundy lower stalks that make such a pretty addition to any dish. Its leaves are usually two to three-and-a-half inches wide. A. tricoccum var. burdickii has a white/green stalk that is shorter than that of var. tricoccum, leaves that are only three-quarters to one-and-three-quarters inches wide, and typically a smaller bulb when fully mature.

A. tricoccum, var. tricoccum // Photo by Andrew Butterbrodt

Here follows a list of guidelines and techniques for picking these beloved flatulence-inducing onions, while leaving plenty for the future. The Stick Method (see next page) described here arose largely out of necessity when the author forgot his entire tool kit at home. Initially the target of much derision, this method has converted many skeptics, and should prove useful to the veteran ramp picker and neophyte alike.

On private land take no more than one bulb for every 10 mature plants. This applies only on property where other foragers will not be harvesting and a seven- to 10- year patch rotation plan can be implemented. On public land pick no more than one leaf from every plant that has three. When picking in any area with a lesser density of ramps, or public areas where other foragers will be, taking the leaves while leaving the bulbs is the only truly sustainable method of harvesting. Be aware that harvesting any plants from state or national parks is not permitted.

A great way to utilize ramps is by grilling them // Photo by Andrew Butterbrodt

You should be able to harvest several good sized ramps from each cluster that you find. This method may seem tedious, but it does accomplish some work for both you and the plants. Not only should a seasoned practitioner of The Stick Method be able to push off the slimy outer layer of the ramp (aka the ramp condom), thereby expediting the cleaning process; but by selecting only the mature ramps and removing them you create more room for the smaller ramps to grow.

Storing and preparation of ramps at home is quite easy. The leaves are more durable than many people give them credit for, but only if left unwashed until immediately before use. Moisture on the leaves during storage will cause them to bruise and rot. Keep bulbs and leaves separately in plastic bags layered amongst dry paper towels and refrigerate for up to two weeks.

Hands down the best method of preparing ramps is on a grill. Dress them with olive oil and salt them. Ramps contain a lot of water, and when they steam the leaves get very chewy, so keep the grill at medium to high heat and leave the top off. The goal is for mostly tender bulbs, and a fair amount of charring on the leaves. That bitter charred leaf attached to the sweet succulent bulb is the ultimate opening day food of the fair weather grilling season. You could put it on a burger or a hot dog, but frankly you should just grab the leaf with your bare hand, dangle it over your mouth, and eat the whole thing in one bite.

The Stick Method (for whole ramp foraging on private lands)

Necessary Tools

  • Spade
  • A sturdy stick or short weed digger:
    about 12 inches long, and one inch in width
  • Knife
  • Paper bag (plastic bags are for dummies)
  • Beverage of choice

A patch of ramps // Photo by Andrew Butterbrodt

Method

1. Select a patch in an area with an abundance of ramps.

2. Look for a high volume of larger plants in a cluster (10 to 50 individuals). Mature plants have stalks a half-inch or greater in width, and leaves six or more inches tall.

3. Make a loud comment about how your ramps are much larger and clearly superior to those of your foraging partner.

4. Planting your spade several inches away from the edge of the cluster, pry the whole grouping of ramps up just enough to loosen the earth around them. It is important to note that you are not heaving the entire cluster out of the ground, but instead merely lifting them an inch or two so as to loosen the soil and make for easier pulling of the root.

5. With the ramp cluster propped up slightly on your spade, employ your stick and select a well developed specimen. Take hold of the lowest accessible part of the stalk, and push your stick down four to five inches into the earth, keeping the stick parallel next to the ramp.

6. Gently but firmly pull upwards on both stick and ramp stalk. If at first the ramp does not yield, use your trusty stick to pry it upwards. Be careful not to damage your ramp or the others around it.

7. Upon extraction, exclaim once again upon the virtues of your ramp selection versus those of your partner. Extol its virility. Note how surely it must be a sign of your own desirous attributes.

8. Once you’ve picked your quota from one cluster, cut the rhizomes (roots) from the base of your ramps and insert them back into the ground from whence they came. They can take several years to regenerate, but hey, more ramps.

9. Press the soil back down around the ramps, and cover any bare patches with leaves. This will assist in preventing any invasive species from taking hold in this spot.

10. Move on to your next ramp cluster, taking care not to lose track of your tools, beverage, or ramps.

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