Wild leeks, or ramps, have gained in popularity recently spawning specialty dishes in high-end restaurants and even festivals. What exactly are these wild onions and where do they come from?
Ramps are a wild onion that grows in damp woodland areas. They are not, for the most part, grown commercially but are instead harvested from the wild. The bulb and leaves are prized for their oniony to garlic taste. They really are quite delicious.
This plant has a long history in its native region in Eastern North America. It has been used medicinally by many Native American tribes but is best known today as a wild edible. They are best known in the Appalachian regions due to the mountains providing a very suitable habitat for these wild onions to grow. However, there once was a thick grove of ramps along Lake Michigan which led to the name a large city you might be familiar with, Chicago. The name Chicago was a French adaptation of the Native American word for ramps, shikaakwa, which was adapted to Chicagou. Who would’ve known that such a big city was named after a wild onion!
While ramps are growing in popularity with the popularity of wild edibles, we could soon see them wiped off the map. They take a long time to reproduce, are frequently poached, and are not grown commercially. This is discussed further below but keep in mind that sustainable harvest of this plant is very important to furture enjoyment.
Common Name: Ramps, Wild Leeks, Ramson, Wood Leeks
Scientific Name: Allium tricoccum
Leaves- 2-3, 6-18 inches long, 2 1/2 inches wide, lanceolate, smooth, onion/leek aroma
Flower- globe shaped, white-creamy yellow, 1/4 inch in length
Harvest Time: Spring
Parts Edible: Bulb, Leaves, Flowers
Found: Native to Eastern North America; likes moist, woodland areas
-Eaten much in the same ways as garlic and onions
-Either boiled, salted, or dried by various Native American tribes
-Used as a spring tonic in many Native American tribes
-Chippewa created a decoction to cause vomiting
-Cherokee consumed ramps to treat colds and croup
-Juice made from the leaves and bulbs were used to treat earaches
-Iroquois made a tonic to treat intestinal worms
-Plant juices used to repel moths
Vitamins, Minerals, & More
-Vitamins A & C
-Sodium, Calcium, Iron, Potassium
-Fried in butter or animal fat
-Added to soups and other dishes
-Eaten much in the same ways as garlic and onions
-Consumption of large amounts of ramps could cause poisoning in some mammals, especially dogs
Ramps are considered an overharvest wild plant. There is a high demand for ramps and are often poached. They are listed under “special concern” in Maine, Rhode Island, and Tennessee. They are protected in Quebec, Canada and cannot be harvested in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Ramps are slow to reproduce, only producing seed when it is at least 7 years old. A patch of ramps could take 20 or more years to recover if entirely removed. That’s why it is important to know how to properly harvest them! Check with your local laws as you may need a permit to harvest, especially if it’s not on your own land.
When harvesting ramps, take only the leaves. The bulb is very important to the health and reproduction of the plant. If you take the bulb you are taking the entire plant! There is no way to reproduce after that. Only take one leaf per plant and harvest only 10% of the population. The leaves are just as edible as the bulb and just as tasty! Taking only leaves, and only one will ensure that the population stays intact, can photosynthesize, and reproduce. Also, consider planting your own or planting new seeds in areas that you have disturbed to get ramps. Sustainable harvesting will ensure we can enjoy ramps for generations to come!
Don’t forget, if the recipe calls for whole ramps you don’t have to use the bulb. In fact, just use the leaves if you can! Try to source your ramps from farmers that harvest them sustainably (just the leaves!). Learn about the proper way to harvest ramps above.
Practicing Sustainable Wild Harvesting
- Only harvest plants you know are safe and can identify
- Only harvest plants in safe areas that are not contaminated or polluted
- Do not harvest on private property without permission
- Harvest no more than 10% or use the method: take 1 leave 2
- Know how to handle and prepare the plants you are harvesting
- Always check the legal status of the plant you want to harvest (is it endangered?)
–Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere
–United Plant Savers Ramps
-Foster, Steven, and James Duke A. Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Of Eastern and Central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 40-41. Print.
Disclaimer: This content is for educational purposes only. I am not a doctor, veterinarian, dietician, or health expert. Licensing is not available in the United States for an herbalist to practice herbal medicine. If you wish to have advice on a medical problem, please consult a doctor. Every person is different and I cannot guarantee that any information provided will work for everyone. You are responsible for your own health and any decision to alter your health is your own choice. Please consult a doctor before making any serious health changes.