The Mighty Little Ramps

There is a happening taking place fit for a king. Like the front row of trombones in a marching band loudly announcing the oncoming joyous spirit of some important event, the wild leeks are announcing the arrival of spring in the woods.

I look back to our hikes in our upland hardwoods, usually during the last few days of March and into early April, to come upon the 2-inch-tall green sprigs of leeks poking up through the surrounding dried leaves, a sure sign that other wildflowers can’t be far behind.

People of the mountains of the Southeast have honored these savory plants, which they call ramps, for many years and celebrate the occasion of their emergence with eagerly awaited “ramp festivals.” This pungent vernal greenery is their spring tonic. Winter has passed, and now the people will begin their own planting, prompted by the arrival of the first vegetable in nature’s garden.

These freshly picked Wild Leeks are ready to be cleaned, cut up and eaten.

Wild leeks are truly wild and have a wild flavor, are powerful healers being high in Vitamins C and A, and are full of healthful minerals. They have the same cholesterol-reducing capacity found in garlic and other members of this family. Scientists at Oregon University are examining the cancer prevention capacity of ramps, or wild leeks. By the way, a word to the wise: always eat them fresh, the same day you pick them if possible.

The use of leeks dates at least as far back as the Egyptians and the time of the pharaohs. The Holy Bible, Numbers 11:5, states, “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely: the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic.”

Apparently their plants were somewhat similar to the cultivated leeks available through many seed and plant catalogs today. They too have escaped into the wild and become naturalized in some of the Eastern states.

All leeks, native or otherwise, are generally alike. They belong to the large lily family containing about 325 species, and are close relatives of the onion, garlic, shallot and chives. Their genus, Allium, is Latin for garlic. Indeed I have always felt that the flavor of leeks is considerably more like that of garlic than onion.

Twelve species of Allium are listed in Gray’s Manual of Botany. Four of them are wild garlic, five wild onion, two leek (one being from the naturalized plant from southeastern Europe), and one chive.

Other native wildflowers of this region related to leeks, and often growing in the same woods, are Wood Lily, Bellwort, Trout Lily, Asparagus, Clintonia, Canada Mayflower, Solomon’s Seal, Twisted Stalk and Trillium.

The rolled-up, quill-like foliage of young leeks quickly develops into flat, rubbery, rich green leaves that can get to be two or more inches wide and eight or nine inches long. Frequently they will occur in patches of hundreds, or even thousands, of plants growing in the rich soil of maple-beech-hemlock hardwoods. In case you are in doubt as to the plant’s identity, trust your nose for positive verification. There can be no mistake. Many people claim the odor and taste are a pleasant combination of onion and garlic.

Wild Leek leaves die back by late May and early June and are totally gone when the flowers bloom in July.

The leaves, like typical ephemerals, appear rapidly in early spring and survive for a relatively short duration. They wilt and disappear quickly once the dense forest canopy of broad leaves has formed. The bulbs will naturally persist much like young onions or scallions, the base somewhat swollen but without a true bulb. In fact, some of the mountain people call them “rampscallions.”

Flowers are borne in the summer on thin nine- or 10-inch tall stems. The quarter-inch, greenish white florets radiate from a central point and resemble a typical rounded cluster of onion flowers, although much smaller. By fall the flowers give way to tiny steely-blue-black buckshot-like seeds, each at the end of its half-inch-long stem. Dig the leek up during the fall color season, and you will find the bulb to be the size of your thumb.

Spring is the best time to eat the young, tender leaves and small bulbs chopped fine and added to a tossed salad. My gentle warning is, go easy the first time. The plant is considered by health food advocates to be an excellent diuretic. Euell Gibbons, in his book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, lists several wild leek recipes for soup, salad, creamed leeks and even pickled leeks.

The most memorable experience I have ever had with wild leeks involved a group of second-graders and their teacher on a day when I had taken them into a sun-drenched woods to search for signs of spring. Throughout the woods were many patches of delicate green plants poking up through the carpet of dead leaves. Knowing what they were (wild leeks) I picked several, tore them into many tiny pieces, and told the children to either smell or taste their sample.

When I asked them what they were reminded of, back came their loud answer, in instant unison, “Onions!” One of the little boys was quick to add his own story. In all seriousness, speaking slowly and clearly, his eyes wide open with expressiveness, he said, “OH, we eat wild leeks at home every spring, and when you eat leeks you have bad breath for three days!”

Plan to have your own ramp festival. Enjoy both their beauty and stimulating goodness. Assume that you’ve discovered a beautiful, quiet, remote hardwoods and have received permission from its owner to hike in it at your pleasure, to witness and celebrate the “spring woods awakening.” Be wise and don’t let your secret “leek” out, even though your breath will reveal what you have been nibbling upon!