The ramp, sometimes called wild leek, is a species of wild onion (Allium tricoccum) that is native to North America. Though the bulb resembles that of a scallion, it has beautiful flat, broad leaves that set it apart. The bottoms of the stems may have a purplish or burgundy color. According to John Mariani, author of The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, the word ramp comes from "rams," or "ramson," an Elizabethan dialect name for the wild garlic plant. In Appalachian regions, the plant is almost always called ramp; elsewhere it is more often known as the wild leek.
Ramps in the Wild
Ramps grow in low mountain altitudes from South Carolina to Canada, and in many areas, they're considered a spring delicacy and even a reason for celebration. Ramps tend to grow in close groups, with roots densely entwined just below the soil surface. They are among the first plants to appear in the spring and are high in vitamins—especially vitamin C. In parts of Canada, the plant is a protected species with carefully enforced harvest limits.
Festivals and Foraging
Harvesting ramps has a long tradition in the Appalachian regions of the U.S. West Virginia is well-known for its many festivals and events in celebration of the ramp. Ramps also form the basis of social festivals in Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. These events are sometimes criticized by conservationists, as they may lead to the over-harvesting of ramps in the wild.
Wild leeks are so popular that foragers have threatened to wipe out the plant in many areas. Conservationists now 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. Harvested this way, the plant will grow back and keep producing perennially.
Culinary Uses for Ramps
The flavor and odor of ramps are often described as a combination of onion and garlic, with the garlic odor particularly prominent. Strong enough, in fact, that even ramp-lovers will advise caution. If you sit down to a big meal of ramps, don't be surprised if people continue to keep their distance until several days have passed!
Cautions aside, ramps add wonderful and uniquely pungent flavor to soups, egg dishes, casseroles, rice dishes, and potato dishes. Use them raw or cooked in any recipe calling for scallions or leeks, or cook them in a more traditional way. Try them mixed into scrambled eggs or fried potatoes. Since ramps aren't cultivated in the way leeks are, they're much easier to clean: just cut off the roots, rinse thoroughly, and scrub off any excess dirt on the bulbs.
Fresh ramps aren't available for very long in the spring, but you can chop and freeze them for later use in cooked dishes. The green tops are milder in flavor and are usually used along with the bulbs. 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. They make a great substitute for green onions.
Specialty grocers may carry ramps when they are in season, but if you can't find a local retailer, they are available seasonally from the online market Earthy Delights.
If you're lucky enough to have fresh ramps in your area, try some of the recipes below.