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

Wild ramps // Photo by Andrew Butterbrodt

For cooks and diners, the ramp’s arrival on market shelves and restaurant menus each spring induces a rabidity to rival even that of the mighty morel. Known for their sweet onion flavor and their comedic pungency (read: farts), festivals celebrating this stinky herald of spring draw thousands of people in the eastern United States. The craze has spread steadily over the last 20 years with many food hobbyists now striking off into the woods in search of their own wild ramps.

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While knowledge about the preparation of ramps abounds, only recently has some less savory information about the growth of these little onions come to light. That consensus—from the increasing number of people who have been paying attention—is this: slowly. Ramps don’t start producing seeds until the plant is five to seven years old, and those seeds don’t exactly take off running.

Researchers have learned that ramp seeds have very particular needs for germination. They require a moist warm period to break root dormancy followed by a cold spell to break shoot dormancy, resulting in germination anywhere from six to 18 months after sowing. As the time to germination increases, the success rate of the seeds plummets accordingly. Ramps also propagate by rhizome- and bulb-splitting, but those are almost equally slow processes, with studies indicating that bulbs can split every three to five years.

When a restaurant puts ramps on the menu, it might be as a seasonal accent to one or two dishes. It might be used in place of another allium—ramp bulbs in place of garlic, shallots, leeks, or onions; ramp greens in place of chives and green onions; and its flowers, scapes, greens, and capers for salads, sauces, garnishes, and other extra touches. This means restaurants are buying hundreds of pounds of wild ramps—including every part of the plant that reproduces—every week from as early as late-March to as late as June.

Ramp scapes // Photo by Andrew Butterbrodt

While some commercial foragers and buyers are conscientious about sustainable harvesting practices, there are numerous reports of illegal and irresponsible foraging every year, and most people just aren’t aware of how destructive this type of exploitation is. If you consider the plant’s slow reproductive habits, the continued deforestation of its native habitat, then top it off with an unhealthy dose of “It-Food-itis,” the ramp might as well be a pair of sloths playing tonsil hockey during a firestorm whilst being eaten alive by a swarm of carnivorous insects.

Thankfully the future isn’t entirely bleak. Due to the attention that ramp poaching and overharvesting has raised, some state agencies have begun regulating the harvest of wild ramps. Maine, Rhode Island, and Tennessee all list ramps as a species of special concern for conservation. Quebec has gone further, setting the personal limit at 50 plants per season, and outright banning commercial sales of the plant.

Additionally, some institutions—notably Purdue University and North Carolina State University—have begun conducting studies regarding the propagation and cultivation of ramps. They’ve shown that proper harvesting and rhizome re-planting techniques can help minimize the damage inflicted to wild ramp populations and maybe even start restoring some damages from human impact. They even conclude that farming ramps is not out of the question.

Which brings us back to the matter of how. How does one forage for ramps in light of all the threats that they face? How do we embrace a role as stewards of the outdoors and the traditions we want to pass on without wiping out the crucial elements? As with anything the answer lies in moderation, not just in our personal harvesting, but in the commercial sale of wild ramps.

On private land take no more than one bulb for every 10 mature plants. On public land pick no more than one leaf from every plant that has three. // Photo by Andrew Butterbrodt

When foraging ramps, take 10% or less of the mature plants in a patch, and only harvest the same patch once every 10 years. Better yet, just take one leaf per plant (that has three leaves or more) and let the bulbs be. When buying ramps in the grocery store or restaurants, take note of the size of any bulbs you see. If they look less than developed, find somebody who makes decisions in the business and politely encourage them to start sourcing only leaves, or better yet, farmed ramps. There are people out there doing this the right way; we as consumers just need to raise the bar a bit for those who might not be.

But answering the question of how is not enough. We, as foragers or eaters of foraged things—both inhabitants of a diminishingly wild world—need to ask ourselves why we do this? Why, when faced with a lengthy drive from our domesticated life of comfort and plenty, do we hunt for potentially toxic plants that are dirty relics of more civilized options readily available in our groceries? There is no real need for more creative anachronism, and whatever supposed health benefits eating wild bestows are purely conjecture. Ramps taste great yes, but are they truly distinct enough from other alliums to warrant this level of consumption? They are relatively easy to locate and identify, but just because we can pick them, should we?

The answer for this author lies in the perspective that is gained from repeated, thoughtful interaction with the wilder spaces we inhabit. Getting involved with our wild spaces is the best way to help ensure their survival. Ramp picking can be an excellent way to do that. Returning to the same spots year after year illustrates the fragility of our natural landscapes with a frightening and beautiful clarity.

The first time my friends and I picked ramps they were not yet the symbol for conservation and sustainability they would become. We did not think twice to dig a spade in and take a square foot of earth. Those craters, empty still five years later, serve as reminders that the thrill of bounty in our world needs be tempered by the realization that while our minds and hearts may be filled exclusively by the romance of wild spaces, our tables no longer can be. Pick kindly my friends.

Next page: Tips for sustainable ramp foraging

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