Feel Good About Eating Ramps: Grow Your Own

Ramp bulbs ready for shipping at Cricket Hill Garden.
Photo used with permission.
Ask about ramps, and you'll likely get a mixed reaction: chefs tend to love them, but others worry they are being over-harvested in order to meet demand.

The first official "green edible" to rise in spring, ramps are in high demand at foodie restaurants, which rely upon foragers to supply. 

Because ramps are not grown in mass production they are often harvested from the wild to meet demand. It also adds to their mystique: Offered for a limited time window in early spring (usually April), ramp bulbs offer a tangy, garlic-onion flavor to spring menus. 


Ramps, or allium triccocum, have grown steadily in popularity over the last several years, especially with foodies. They can be found as far south as Georgia and as far north as Quebec. But foragers - who can sometimes get up to $10-$20 a pound from restaurants eager to offer them in dishes - are harvesting wild ramps at unsustainable rates. Ramps spread best by underground rhizomes, so removing them all will diminish the plots. 


"It's a lucrative plant to forage but indiscriminately harvested," said Dan Furman, co-owner of Cricket Hill Garden in Thomaston, Conn. The plant itself takes seven years to reach maturity when started from seed, so foragers can wipe out a patch pretty quickly. According to Furman, foragers typically take about one third of the plant population when they are found in the wild, which is too high for ramps. 

Ramps can be seen growing in the
background behind Dutchman's Breeches
in this photo from a nature hike last year.

"Ramps are harvested along stream beds but there are other fragile woodland plants that share the same habitat," he said. "If people are digging up ramps using shovels, they may also be destroying other slow-growing native plants, including trilliums and bloodroot."


Quebec has placed limitations on harvesting, banning the commercial harvest in 1995. Great Smokey Mountains National Park banned wild harvesting back in 2004. According to North Carolina State University studyramps should be limited to harvest between five and 10 percent in each plot for it to be considered a sustainable rate. Another study recommends a ten percent harvest of ramp populations once every 10 years.


He said a lack of awareness of how the wild ramps are harvested is part of the problem. "They are good to enjoy, but they have to be managed properly," said Furman. 


That's when Furman realized more people could enjoy ramps if they grew them themselves. He started with seeds and began to establish his own woodland plot at Cricket Hill Garden. Now he is able to sell ramp bulbs and seeds to gardeners wishing to grow their own supply. The bulbs he sells are close to flowering age and are shipping now for a limited time window (in order to be dug up and shipped). 


The seeds are sold year-round, stratified in order to sprout faster. (Otherwise, seeds can take six to 18 months to germinate.) The plant produces a flower spike in July (with white flowers), similar to an onion. Seeds are usually produced by August. Allowed to self-seed, the patch will gradually grow larger over time.

Specific Conditions Yield Bumper Crops - in Time

Ramps grow under deciduous trees, such as beech, birch, sugar maple, popular, hickory and oaks, according to Furman. If you currently grow trilliums, bloodroot, trout lily or mayapple, considering growing ramps. "If you have an area suitable for ramps, let them naturalize, he suggests. "They grow in a deciduous forest setting before the leaves come out, so they get full sun."

Ramps also seem to favor soils with high calcium to magnesium ratios, and are often found in areas with a soil pH between 4.9 and 7.2, according to Furman. "It's hard to create an artificial spot or to amend a site to mimic where they grow in nature," he said. In garden beds in shady spots, ramps will grow but not flourish. To get the most out of ramps, choose a well-drained site with rich, moist soil high in organic matter, said Furman. 


Ramps in the wild are often found along banks of seasonal brooks and streams, which will be very wet in the spring but can be dry by late summer.  For best results, he recommended adequate moisture throughout all seasons. "It's a fragile native plant," he said.


The tops are edible as well as the bulbs, which is a more sustainable way of harvesting ramps by leaving the bulb alone. In late May to early June, ramps go dormant, with the foliage totally dying back by June, according to Furman. As the foliage starts to wither, the bulb swells, doubling in size - a perfect time to make pickled ramps. 


"Ramps are quite delicious," said Furman. "They have a pungent, garlic-oniony flavor." You can sauté them with bacon or make a ramp pesto from the tops, as Furman does. 


There's even a new cookbook dedicated to the art of cooking ramps - appropriately named, "Ramps: The Cookbook."

For more information on growing your own ramps, visit Cricket Hill Garden's website here.

Comments

  1. Great post! My Appalachian grandmother introduced me to ramps years ago and it's been interesting to see how popular they've become. She was always careful to make sure plenty of rhizomes were left to ensure we'd have the treat again come next spring.
    Cheers, Ben

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That sounds great Ben! Thanks for reading!

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  2. Nice to see you've started a patch, Jen! The only time I've had ramps was when a friend harvested them from the roadside out in the country! Never heard of them before that.

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    Replies
    1. I learned about them during a hike around Sleeping Giant a few years ago. I won't harvest any this year, but I'm glad they survived the winter!

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