Foraging For Ramps
One of the first things I look forward to in early spring is foraging for ramps. I have located a few stands of ramps in and around where I live and go back year after year to harvest. The best part is that there doesn’t seem to be any other foragers in these two locations, so I have the harvest all to myself!
I believe passionately about foraging ethically which means I never take more than I need and always leave behind plenty for the next person (if there ever is anybody).
As much as I love a delicious ramp bulb, I resist digging them up because I want to ensure that they will be available year after year. I imagine it will only be a matter of time before others discover my spot. There seems to be more and more people foraging these days, so it’s super important to forage ethically.
Here’s a post I wrote on ethical foraging for beginners that I think you might find useful.
What are Ramps?
But first, let’s talk about what ramps even are. Ramps are perennial plants that belong to the onion family. They’re also called wild leeks and have a similar taste to green onions, garlic or shallots. Ramp bulbs start out as small white beads in early spring but will turn into clusters of juicy blades by late April if they’ve been left undisturbed.
How to Identify ramps
Ramps have slender white bulbs that grow from 2-3 broad, smoothe leaves on long, burgundy colored stems with broad pointed tips.They also appear quite leafy at ground level due to its low-lying foliage which typically grows close together. Another way to identify ramps is by its strong onion-garlic aroma.
To identify ramp leaves from other similar species, you should look for three things:
- Look at the leaves. Ramps have one or two leaves that emerge separately from the ground, each on its own stem.Ramp leaves have a light green color, while other similar species are usually darker in color.
- Look at the roots. Ramps emerge from a bulb and have rootlets at the very end of it.
- Look at the flowers. Ramps do not have a flower stem until later in the season.
- Smell it. The aroma of ramps leaves is distinctively onion-y or garlicky.
Do Ramps Have Any Look-A-Likes?
There are two look-a-like plants to watch out for when foraging for ramps. These are lily-of-thr-valley and false hellebore.
Lily of the Valley and ramps are actually related, which explaines their similarities. They are both members of the onion family and are similar in size. However, Lilly of the Valley has thicker, more wavy leaves. What makes it tricky to distinguish the two is that both grow at similar times in the same locations. Two main differences is that Lilly of the valley has no true bulb and produces through underground stems, and lacks the telltale oniony smell.
The other look-a-like is false hellebore. Many people end up with false hellebore poisoning each year because they mistake them for ramps. Identification can be tricky because both the false hellebore and ramps grow in similar locations. Also, the young leaves of false hellebore do bear some resemblance to ramp leaves. Again, a telltale identifier of ramps is the smell. Crush a leaf in your fingers…if it smells like garlic or onion, then it’s ramps and not false hellebore.
Where Do Ramps Like to Grow?
Ramps are native to North America and prefer rich, well-drained soil that’s been left undisturbed by humans or their animals. They typically grow near the edges of forests and on flood plains in moist soil with lots of shade. If you know where these conditions exist, then chances are good that there’s a stand nearby waiting for discovery by someone willing -like me-to find it again year after year!
When you do spot ramps in the wild, if you’re not gathering them for eating, be careful not to disturb them because they’re slow-growing plants that have taken a lot of time and energy to sprout from seeds buried deep beneath layers of leaf litter or soil.
What Do Ramps Taste Like?
Ramps have an onion-y flavor that’s subtler than onions but with more garlic notes. The leaves also have a similar flavor but without the strong raw aroma (they smell nice fried). People who love pungent flavors might find ramps too mild tasting for their tastes; those who enjoy delicate flavors may prefer them because they don’t overwhelm other ingredients’ flavors as much as onions can. Ramps go well with eggs, potatoes, mushrooms, omelets, or just about anywhere you would use onions or garlic.
How Should I Harvest Ramps?
Harvesting ramps should be an ethical, sustainable process that requires a little patience.
The ideal time for foraging for ramps here in the Northeast is early spring because they will be at their most tender and flavorful.
I don’t recommend taking the whole plant because they reproduce by sending up new shoots from their roots. Harvesting the whole plant will eliminate the chances of this plant coming back year after year.
If you really want the bulb, then it is recommended that you harvest only a few bulbs here and there over an extended period of time so that they have enough energy to create more ramps for next year’s season.
I prefer to harvest the leaves only. So when you find healthy ramps with full leafy tops (that haven’t been touched by deer), break off the leaves as close to where they attach at the bulb as possible. This will help protect them when it rains or snows because these plants are very fragile once unearthed.
Harvesting ramps sustainably is an important part of living in a healthy ecosystem and promoting continuity.
How Can I Ensure the Integrity of My Harvest?
If harvesting ramps yourself on public property, please leave at least two leaves behind for each plant taken so it’s easy for others to identify what has already been harvested.
It’s important to know what to do with ramps once you’ve harvested them so that they don’t go to waste and are ethically foraged. If the greens start turning brown, then it means that they were cut too long ago or weren’t handled correctly during harvest.
There’s a delicate balance between when ramps should be picked because harvesting earlier in their season will result in more intense flavors, but if left on the plant for too long can cause bitterness – which isn’t good either!
When foraging for ramps, do not pick all of your stems from one patch as this could damage the plants’ ability to reproduce themselves. It’s best just to pick enough for your needs to ensure that the next generation of ramps will continue to thrive.
Ways To Cook Ramps
Cooking ramps can be done by roasting, steaming, sauteeing, or boiling. In the above photo, I sauteed them in a bit of brown butter with just a bit of lemon pepper seasoning. They were delicious!
There are many ways to use ramps in recipes such as soups, eggs, salads and pasta dishes.
The most common way is to add them raw to any dish where they can cook along with the other ingredients (like onions).
It’s a good idea not to salt your ramps until you’re finished cooking or it will toughen their leaves. You’ll want all of those flavors intact while serving!
To use the stems, you can blanch them and then saute or pressure cook them for a few minutes before adding your favorite sauces and spices. You can also make pesto with ramps as an appetizer if you have more time on your hands, but it’s best not to leave the plant unattended too long because they’ll start turning black quickly – which is not good eats.
What is the Nutritional Value of Ramps?
The nutritional value of ramps is exactly what you would expect from a leafy green vegetable. They’re low in calories, high in protein (mostly as amino acids), and rich with vitamins A, C, K, and B-complex group of vitamins such as folic acid or thiamine. Ramp leaves contain more vitamin A than any other part of the plant – almost twice that found in broccoli!
So, now that we’ve learned all about foraging for ramps and how to find them in the wild, what are you going to do with your newfound knowledge? I’m looking forward to hearing from you!