Ramps–a cousin of onions, leeks, scallions, and shallots–grow in low mountain altitudes from South Carolina to Canada. In many areas, they're considered a spring delicacy and a reason for celebration. Harvesting ramps has a long tradition in the Appalachian region of the United States, with West Virginia particularly well known for its many festivals and events. Ramp festivals are also held in Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. There are many ways to enjoy ramps: raw, sautéed, roasted, grilled, and pickled too.
What Are Ramps?
Ramps are a species of wild onion (Allium tricoccum) native to the woodlands of North America. They look like scallions but have broad leaves and a purplish stem. Ramps are among the first plants to appear in the spring, typically showing up in the Appalachian region in mid-March and around the Great Lakes in early April.
According to John Mariani, author of "The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink," the word ramps comes from "rams" or "ramson," the name of the wild garlic plant in an Elizabethan dialect. People in Appalachia, its native habitat, call the plants "ramps." Elsewhere, they're known as wild leeks.
An increase in demand from food-savvy consumers and its short, three-week growing season has led to a scarcity of this traditionally foraged vegetable. As a result, commercial growers now cultivate ramps to supply specialty grocery and produce markets. Ramps cost more than scallions and other cultivated onions, but aficionados claim that they're worth it.
How to Use Ramps
Use ramps raw or cooked in any recipe calling for scallions or leeks. Cut off any hairy roots, peel off the first layer of leaves, and rinse or wipe off any excess dirt on the bulbs. Slice the ramps thin and use fresh in salads or sauté them with scrambled eggs or fried potatoes. You can also grill or roast them—the stems, leaves, and bulbs are all edible.
What Do They Taste Like?
The flavor and aroma of ramps are often described as a combination of onion and garlic, with the garlic note particularly evident—strong enough that even ramp lovers will advise caution. They're sometimes referred to by the nickname "little stinkers." The green tops are milder in flavor and are often used along with the stronger-tasting bulbs.
Ramps add a uniquely pungent flavor to soups and casseroles, as well as egg, rice, and potato dishes. They make a great substitute for green onions in any application.
Where to Buy Ramps
Specialty grocers and farmers markets may sell ramps when they are in season. They're typically sold in small bunches or priced per pound, but some places will sell them in bulk. Choose ramps with healthy-looking dark green leaves (but not too dark). Make sure the leaves are not wilted and that the 10- to 14-inch long stalks are thin rather than thick. Thin stalks are more tender. If you can't find a local retailer, you can sometimes buy them from the online market Earthy Delights.
If you want to grow your own ramps, you can plant seeds. Better yet, choose some ramps with roots attached, slice a little bit off the top of each bulb, let them soak in water overnight, and plant them the next day in an environment similar to their natural one. These are woodland plants that typically grow underneath deciduous trees, where the soil is moist and well drained, and the lighting is a perfect balance of shade to partial shade. Growing ramps takes patience—they reach maturity in about seven years.
Wrap fresh ramps in a damp paper towel and store them in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator for several days. Ramps only grow for a few weeks in the spring, but you can chop and freeze them for later uses. Chop about half of the green leaves separately, air-dry them for a few hours, then freeze them in an air-tight container for future use as a seasoning. You can also blanch the leaves, shock them in an ice-water bath, let them air-dry, then freeze them in a single layer on a cookie sheet before storing them in a freezer bag or other container. You can freeze the bulbs and stems as well, either separately or together. They're good frozen for up to six months.
Pickling the ramps' stems and bulbs (not the leaves or roots) and storing them in Mason jars is another way to enjoy them year-round. They can be pickled and refrigerated or processed in a water bath canning method so they're shelf-stable until the jar is opened. When pickled, the ramps get a little sweet and sour.
Nutrition and Benefits
With a nutritional profile similar to scallions, ramps are low in calories but relatively high in vitamins, especially vitamin C. They also deliver a small amount of fiber, iron, and potassium. Allicin, the compound responsible for the strong smell, can have an anti-inflammatory effect and may reduce blood pressure as well.
Ramps are so popular that foragers are overharvesting the plant in many areas. In parts of Canada, the plant is a protected species with carefully enforced harvest limits. They tend to grow in close groups with roots densely entwined just below the soil surface. Conservationists recommend a harvest method used by Native Americans in which the plant root is cut with a sharp knife leaving roughly one-third of the bulb and the attached roots remaining in the ground. When harvested this way, the plant will grow back and keep producing perennially.