The smell of garlicky, oniony ramps is a signal spring has finally arrived. Here are some tips for foraging and harvesting those delicious treats.
It's about that time. The the forest floor will soon show the first signs of becoming a shag carpet of vibrant green, lance-shaped leaves.
Practically everyone knows ramps (Allium tricoccum) are a premier wild edible. Here are 10 tips for planning a day trip to harvest a few of the pungent vegetables.
1. Follow your nose
I discovered one of my favorite ramp locations by odor rather than by sight. I had been walking along a path in a woodlot one spring, and suddenly I was surrounded with the very noticeable aroma of garlic. I knew what it was and followed it upwind until I came upon a four or five acre wooded "lawn" of ramps. The aroma is unmistakable, and a lesson to rely on your sense of smell as much as your eyesight.
2. Eat the leaves
Most people go after ramp bulbs, but the leaves are every bit as flavorful and worthy of eating. In addition to the flavor ramp leaves bring to any dish, they also add color. Simply chop them up and add to a dish just as you would the bulbs.
Another great reason for harvesting just the leaves is the rest of the plant remains intact, healthy, and ready to regenerate leaves to replace the ones it lost. The only tool you'll need is a scissors. No shovel or digging required.
3. Don't take it all
Ramps are slow-growing plants. If you're not careful, or not the only one harvesting in the same location, you might overharvest and completely destroy a ramp-producing location. It's been known to happen more often than we might think.
The general rule of thumb is to take only a third of anything you find. Take only a third of a cluster, and return the rest to the earth. At most, take only a third of the ramps from any particular location. Find other locations and spread your harvesting around. Foraging is as susceptible to sustainability issues as any other "farming" activity. We should think of ourselves less as foragers and more as stewards or gardeners.
4. Be a Johnny Rampleseed
Take a few partial clusters and replant them into other areas. Of course, be sure to get permission to do this.
I have planted a number of ramp clusters along the west and north sides of my house, where the shade and soil seem conducive for them to grow. They have taken hold and now come up every year. I appreciate that I can walk out the door with a pair of scissors and quickly harvest a few leaves to add to a dish I'm preparing.
After the ramps have bolted and the leaves have disappeared, you can fill a jar with the hard, black seeds and scatter them in other areas.
5. Seeds are delicious too
Ramp seeds, when first formed, are tasty additions to your kitchen experiments. Before they turn black and as hard as stone, they are green, juicy, crunchy, and flavorful. Sprinkle them on pizzas, salads, bruschetta, and omelets.
6. Dry them, pickle them, can them
It's a good idea to use what you harvest soon after you get it, but it's also nice to be able to pull some ramps off the shelf or out of the refrigerator in the middle of winter. Learn a few ways to preserve ramps for future use.
You can pickle and store them in the refrigerator, or use a hot water bath canning method for long-term shelf storage. You can also dry them to use the way you would use dried onions in soups, salts, or brines.
All you really need to go ramp harvesting is something to carry them in, and a shovel, digging fork, or scissors. Your boots will get muddy and your hands will get dirty, so bring an extra pair of shoes and a hand whisk broom, gloves, or hand towels.
If the location where I'm going to harvest doesn't have a stream running through it, I might fill a few containers with water and use it rinse the ramps and clean my hands and tools. Don't forget tick repellant.
Photographing the day is part of the fun, so don't forget your camera.
The main reason you're going into the woods to get your hands dirty in the first place is to acquire some delicious vegetables. Be sure to plan ahead for what you will do with those ramps when you get home. We usually whip up a nice ramp pesto to add to our favorite dishes, and curried ramps make a colorful side dish for venison or beef steak.
9. Learn Latin
The Latin name for ramps is Allium tricoccum. Do you need to know that? No, not really. However, one of the tips I give people interested in foraging is to learn the scientific names of the plants they're interested in. It'll help to correctly identify the plants and when you do any kind of research. A good wild edible guidebook should contain the scientific names of plants.
10. Worms for fishing
My last tip is for foragers who are also fishermen or fisherwomen. Bring an empty soup can or small container with you to carry home some worms. One thing you can be sure of is you will find worms when you dig for ramps.
I can't tell you how many angleworms I've found. There almost always seem to be a few in every clump of ramps I dig up. I bring a can with a couple of holes punched into the rim with a leather shoelace strung through. I loop it around my belt and let it dangle. Every worm big enough goes into the can.
Fried bluegills and ramps make a great lunch!
All photos via Creative Sustenance