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Wild Ramps (onions): The Hunted Harbinger of Spring

Ramps emerging in early April, one of the first woodland plants.
Photo: Shane Bugeja
Growing up in Iowa, I remember the first green thing I would see after three (maybe four) snowy months was wild ramps (Allium tricoccum). We were fortunate to have a significant part of the backyard in woodlands, and it was always a treat to see them carpet much of the forest floor.

My mother would gather a handful once a year out of a thousand and make a great pesto out of them. Granted, the garlic smell seemed like it lasted a year in the kitchen.

Oddly, the nearby park, which had similar soils and habitat for ramps, had precious few of them. It was strange to me that our little patch of woods had oodles of it, but acres and acres around us did not.

Soon I learned why; one of the first emerging plants in spring was also one of the first to be plucked by people—and they were not content with an annual pesto.
Ramps leafing out in late April. Note the mottled
trout lily leaves in the background.
Photo: Diane Bugeja

Why the word 'ramps'?

The word “ramps” always was interesting to me as the common name for Allium tricoccum. Indeed, it has other names that make more sense such as wild leek or wild onion. 

Ramps may have come from the Old English word for onion or garlic, “hramsa”. Note, there was no Allium tricoccum in Europe back then, but there was a related species, Allium ursinum

Also called "bear garlic," the European ramps are almost a dead ringer for our North American ones. Thus, when Europeans arrived here, ramps seemed like a fine name for Allium tricoccum— used and munched on much the same way their bear garlic. 

Where do they grow?

Wild ramps emerge early in woodland landscapes, typically by April in dense clusters. Being one of the first out of the ground also makes ramps highly susceptible to certain invasive plants such as garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata)—which also wants a head start in spring. Thus, finding a large patch of ramps often indicates a healthy forest ecosystem.

Other woodland plants such as stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) or Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum) can hide or “photobomb” ramps, making it more difficult to spot certain times of the year. 

A wild ramp grows near a hackberry tree.
Photo: Diane Bugeja
Favoring cooler, moist but not wet environments, ramps are a finicky type of plant. It also enjoys rich, deep, and moderately drained soil. Ramps tend to grow best under trees that leaf out later in the year, so precious sunlight can dapple through the canopy for as long as possible. 

Literature about ramps usually lists maple (Acer spp.) as an example of a good companion tree. However, in our wooded lot, hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) and black cherry (Prunus serotina) seem to play nice with them, too. 

How to identify this plant

A ramp’s central stem is rather short and not well defined above the ground with rubbery, hairless leaves loosely bound together. 
  • Leaf: Typically a lighter shade of green and depending on the type of ramps it may have a reddish stalk. 
  • Bulb: Only slightly larger than a green onion’s, 
  • Scent: The whole plant will have a sulfur-like, garlic smell if disturbed. 
  • Stalk or scape: Depending on the type of ramps it may have a reddish stalk. Later in the summer, 4 to 7-year-old plants will send a leafless flower stalk (also called a scape) where it will bloom into a small globe of whitish flowers. 
  • Flower: Can be hard to see, as its leaves significantly shrivel or can even be absent at this time.
  • Seeds/propagation: During the fall and winter months, ramps release their small, black seeds to the ground, taking up to 18 months before they germinate.
A ramps old flower stalk from the
previous fall.
Photo: Diane Bugeja

Varieties of wild ramps

Two varieties of wild ramp exist, burdickii and tricoccum. Occasionally, you may see these ramps listed as separate species. Variety burdickii (also called narrow leaf wild leek) has thinner leaves than variety tricoccum and lacks the reddish color on their stalks. 

Their flowers also differ slightly and may even shed pollen at different times. Thankfully, both varieties are edible and smell garlicky. (Please note the pictures on this article are of variety tricoccum, as this is the type of ramps that are present near my family’s home.)

Plant uses

Most parts of wild ramps can be eaten, from leaf to bulb. Unfortunately, it keeps rather poorly, and some dry the leaves or pickle them to eat later. 

In states such as Tennessee or West Virginia, ramps are frequently fried with meat or eggs, and often accompany festivals celebrating the plant.

If you decide to forage for ramps in Minnesota, follow all local and state laws, and never eat any wild plant without knowing definitively what it is. 

If you do decide to forage, be on the lookout for several woodland plants that are lookalikes. These include bluebead (Clintonia borealis), trout lilies (Erythronium spp.) or the extremely toxic lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis). 

All these plants will lack the garlic smell of ramps. Still, even this “smell technique” is not foolproof, as the smelly residue of a wild ramp can carry its odor across your fingers. This can trick you into thinking the next plant is a ramp when in truth it is a lookalike. 
Ramps ready for food prep. Note the reddish leaf stalks, lack of a clear
stem and whitish bulb.
Photo: Shane Bugeja

Overharvesting of ramps

Its choice edibility is in dangerous combination with its botany. As mentioned earlier, wild ramps could take as much as seven years to produce seed, and even then, can take more than a year and a half until the seeds germinate. Granted, older ramps can reproduce vegetatively. This is perhaps even more common than seed germination in the wild, but this does not equal fast recovery. 

In the US, ramps are so desired that many states on the east coast and in Appalachia have them as a threatened or even endangered species. In Canada, harvest of them is strictly regulated in provinces such as Quebec.

What is a sustainable harvest of ramps then? 

This question is not an easy one. Having one rule makes a lot of assumptions about the density of ramps and the health of the environment. One technique is to only harvest leaves. A Canadian study found only a limited impact on plant survival, provided it was a later in the spring and only ½ of the leaves were removed.

If bulbs must be harvested, a University of Tennessee experiment suggested no more than 10 percent can be harvested in a given area over a ten year period. Remember this is just to keep the population stable.

If people harvested 95 percent of wild ramps instead, the scientists estimate almost 150 years until the wild ramp population would recover. Bear in mind that Minnesota has only been a state for 161 years (almost 162 as of this writing).

So next time you want to harvest these unique plants, value them as much as the beautiful state we live in.

Resources

Chamberlain, J. Beegle, D., and Lajeunesse Connette, K. “Forest Farming Ramps”. 2014. National Agroforestry Center, United States Forest Service.

Chayka, K, and Dziuk, P. “Wild Leek”. 2020.

Hilty, J. “Narrow-Leaved Wild Leek”. 2020.

Hilty, J. “Wild Leek”. 2020.

Author: Shane Bugeja, Extension Educator for Blue Earth and Le Sueur Counties
Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources
































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