Fresh, green, and stinky, ramps are one of the early edible indicators that spring has officially arrived. From homecooked meals to full-on feasts, these tasty wild leeks have been a staple of West Virginia’s identity for over a century. In the past decade, the local and wild foods movement has driven a huge increase in demand for Appalachian foods. The coveted ramp can now be found in Whole Foods and high-end restaurants from New York City to Los Angeles. While a rising demand for ramps has boosted the economy in West Virginia for some, others worry that overharvesting will prevent future generations from enjoying these essential edibles.
With a flavor profile that blends the spice of onion and garlic with the crunch of salad greens, ramps can be munched straight from the soil or cooked up in a variety of dishes. As the ramp leaves pop up from the soil each spring, so too do the annual ramp dinners across the Mountain State. Richwood’s Feast of the Ramson Festival, the oldest ramp festival in West Virginia, will be celebrating its 81st birthday this April. These events bring together local communities and feature arts, crafts, and music alongside heaps and heaps of ramps. Although these events define spring in Appalachia, the increased popularity of ramps has led to concerns about overharvesting wild populations. “I want these festivals to be a sustainable opportunity for folks in the future,” says Doug Manning, an ecologist in West Virginia, “that’s why we need to think about sustainable practices for harvesting and cultivating ramps.”
Ramps (Allium tricoccum) are native to hardwood forests of the eastern United States and Canada. Their bulbs remain underground all year, but their leaves emerge after the snow melts in March or April, making them an ideal indicator for the arrival of spring. While ramps coat entire hillsides in some areas, other regions have noted a marked decline in populations. In Quebec, nearly 20 percent of documented wild ramp populations have disappeared, leading to a ban on commercial harvesting. Ramps are endangered in New York and considered a species of concern in Tennessee. In the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia, personal collection of ramps is allowed, but not commercial harvesting. These declines in wild ramp populations have raised questions about balancing the cultural value of ramps with ecological concerns of overharvesting.
Sustainable harvesting is defined as a harvest “in which plant products can be harvested indefinitely from a limited area with little impact to the populations,” says botanist Janet Rock in a paper published about ramps in the journal Biological Conservation. Rock and other researchers suggest that a sustainable harvest rate for ramps would be 10 percent of a population once every 10 years but noted that harvesting as little as five percent of a population could still be detrimental. As a relatively slow-growing species, ramps take seven to 10 years to reach maturity. During this time, ramps gather and store resources in bulbs to support their growth for the following year. Although flowers and seeds can increase population sizes, ramps primarily add to their populations through bulk propagation.
Local harvesters use a variety of approaches to minimize their impacts on wild ramps. “I typically use a small knife to dig up part of a clump of ramps,” says Davis resident Frank Slider, a Master Naturalist who has been eating ramps since he was 12 and prefers them with potatoes and eggs. Slider leaves a few individuals in each patch and rotates his sampling sites to prevent harvesting too many plants from a single population. Manning also tries to reduce his impact while harvesting: “When it comes to sustainable harvesting practices, I follow the guidance put out there by researchers such as Jim Chamberlain to harvest late in the season and harvest less than 10% of a patch once every 10 years. Realistically for me, this number is closer to 1%. I also collect and harvest more greens than collecting whole bulbs.” Harvesting only the leaves is thought to allow the bulbs to sprout again the following year.
Cultivating ramp gardens and farms may be another great way to “reduce pressure on wild populations,” says Slider, who has developed a ramp garden of his own by propagating bulbs and planting seeds. “I think there’s a great opportunity in West Virginia to cultivate ramps as crops and non-timber forest products,” says Manning. This is an approach that Glen and Norene Facemire took in Richwood, West Virginia, where they claimed to have had the only ramp farm in the world. This ramp farm, initially up for sale, is now closed – Ed.
The popularity of ramps will likely rise as urban foodies continue their quest for rural delicacies. While increased demand could lead to the downfall of wild ramp populations, it conversely presents an opportunity to develop innovative approaches that maintain the viability of ramp populations while ensuring that West Virginians maintain a cultural connection to this wild edible.
“What I love most about ramps is being out in the forest and digging them,” says Manning. “Ramps grow in the most beautiful places in the forest, where it’s sunny and warm and you’re surrounded by Trillium, bloodroot, Hepatica, and all of the spring ephemerals as well. Then you get to go share them with all your friends. Those are my favorite days of the whole year. I never see people as giddy and happy as they are on those first days of spring.”
Nikki Forrester is associate editor of Highland Outdoors and cleared a room with her breath after researching this article. She’s been in quarantine ever since.