Updated: May 2, 2019
(Clockwise from left: Some of the first ramps to emerge in the Smokies this year (3/9); Early ramps in the Toe River Valley (3/11); A ramp plant sending up its flower bud in late April--the leaves will yellow and die before the plant blooms, usually in May-June.)
Nothing breaks the winter doldrums quite like the pungent odor and taste of these wild onions. Ramp season has arrived sooner than ever this spring and demand for ramps is on the rise. But as gathering and indulging has gone from a local tradition to a regional culinary craze, ramp patches are taking a hit.
Like most of our native flora, ramps (Allium tricoccum) are a long-lived perennial. The leaves are green for only one month of the year, but the bulb lives for many years. A single seed can take over a year to germinate and the plant then takes 5-7 years to reach maturity. Every bulb harvested represents several years of growth. A study conducted in Great Smoky Mountains National Park found that a ramp patch takes 10 years to recover from a modest 10% harvest! The same study showed that a patch takes 2.5 years to recover from just a 5% harvest. This means that a sustainable harvest requires digging less than 1 in 10 plants out of only 1 in 10 patches each year. Last year, patches that I have known for years had over half of their plants taken. This is a recipe for disaster for the species and for those who love to eat it.
For now, there are still sites on public lands where ramps are abundant, but those areas are being dug at an unsustainable rate. If ramps are to be enjoyed by future generations of mountain residents, harvesting and consumption practices will need to change. The only truly sustainable way to harvest and enjoy ramps is to harvest only leaves. Cut one leaf from some of the robust plants that have at least two leaves. Extra caution should be taken to keep your harvest from wilting, but this can easily be done by keeping the leaves cool, moist, and shaded. If you are a chef, restaurant owner, or roadside ramp-customer, please buy from reputable harvesters who have harvested in this manner. Pay a premium for these leaves (without the bulb, they will be cleaner and weigh less), but you will know that you are getting the very freshest ingredients for your kitchen.
Not only are ramps delicious and aromatic; their habitat is bewitchingly rich and beautiful. Ramps grow in rich, diverse coves full of fragile and ephemeral spring wildflowers like trillium and dutchman’s britches. Destructive methods of digging with a hand hoe disturb far more than just the ramps. If someone gives you a mess of ramps that includes bulbs, you can cut off a generous portion of each bulb and replant them, roots intact, in a location where similar rich cove species thrive.
Due to scarcity, Canada was forced to ban ramp harvesting on public lands over 20 years ago. Great Smokies N.P. banned harvesting in 2004 and have recently been in discussion with Cherokee leaders over whether to allow the traditional Cherokee method of harvesting leaves while leaving bulbs. Currently the only restrictions on local National Forest land is that commercial harvesting (over 5 lbs) requires a permit and commercial harvests are limited to 500 lbs per permit. Based on the data gathered in the Smokies, these USFS recommendations and policies are due for an update.
One way the USFS keeps tabs on the ramps harvest is by how many commercial permits are issued. The Appalachian Ranger District only issued 26 commercial permits last year, with an average reported harvest of 46.5 lbs per permit. However, the system relies heavily on the integrity and honesty of harvesters as well as what may prove to be outdated harvesting guidelines. If you purchase ramps, ask whether the seller has a permit. Just as fishing permits help prevent overfishing, collection permits are the only policy currently in place for managing healthy populations of ramps. Commercial harvesters are required to carry their permit on their person and are not allowed to dig next to a trail or within 100 feet of a stream. In order to avoid the “Tragedy of the Commons” that has occurred elsewhere, local harvesting practices need to change before ramps become as rare as ginseng.
(Left: Ramp seeds in late summer; Right: Lily-of-the-Valley, a deadly poisonous distant cousin to ramps. Last spring a family of tourists to Toe River Valley ended up in the hospital after mistaking Lily-of-the-Valley for ramps.)
Other sources: For two excellent and thorough articles about sustainable ramps harvesting, see these posts (Part 1 and Part 2) by Bjorn Bergman in the Edible Madison blog and Lawrence Davis-Hollander’s article in Grit.