With the change of season into spring the forest will start to emerge from its slumber. Soon the morel mushrooms, dandelions, fiddlehead ferns and several other wild edibles will be popping up. One of the often-overlooked treats is the wild ramp or wild leek.
The wild ramp is an annual plant that is related to the onion. This plant is celebrated by culinary festivals in many communities throughout the Appalachians to celebrate the coming of spring. It is one of the earliest herbs to emerge in the forest and regarded as a spring tonic.
The plant itself has a strong earthy garlic flavor and smell. The bulb can be eaten either fresh or cooked. It is often pan fried or used in soups and stews to add a garlic flavor. The bulb is most frequently used but the leaf of the plant is also edible. The bulb can also be pickled and used as a condiment or snack.
My favorite preparation is to fry the bulbs in bacon grease and a little salt and pepper until they are tender. In addition to eating them, a poultice from the leaves has been historically used on the skin to treat inflammation caused by stings from bees or wasps.
Similar to garlic, eating a quantity of these will result in an odor that passes through the skin. It has been told to me that young men growing up in the Appalachia region would eat a large quantity of ramps so that they could be excused from school due to their smell; at least until the teachers realized what was going on, then they would just put all the "smelly" students in a separate classroom.
Wild ramps are found in rich deciduous forest. They typically have two to three lance-elliptic shiny green leaves with a pointed tip. The leaves are approximately a foot in length with a deep red or white stem. The base of the plant will have a slightly enlarged bulb. When the leaves are bruised there is a strong scent of onion or garlic. They usually are found in groups. It took me many years to finally locate any abundance of ramps in the copper country. There are many plants emerging in the spring that fit the general profile or identity of a ramp. There are several plants that have broad green leaves and purple or white stems that at first resemble ramps although none of the lookalikes have the same strong onion-like aroma. Similar to morels, the location of a ramp patch may be a well-guarded secret. I was fortunate to get a tip from a friend before I finally found them.
To harvest ramps, it's best to have a trowel or shovel to break them free from the earth and knock off any remaining dirt attached to them. As a conservative approach it is also best to take only a portion of a patch and then move on to the next patch to harvest more.