In the Appalachian Mountains, spring really starts with ramps and ramp festivals.
Also known as wild leeks, ramps (Allium tricoccum) have been described as having a flavor that falls somewhere between that of garlic, onions, and scallions. While the taste is sweet, the pungent smell of ramps—and of those who’ve eaten them—has been known to clear a room.
Native to the hardwood forests of eastern North America, ramps emerge in moist, shady areas of Appalachian forests in late March when the plant sends up a circle of smooth broad leaves that die back when the overhead trees are fully leafed out. People collect both the leaves and spicy bulb of the plant as a spring tonic, a tradition the early settlers may have learned from Native Americans.
Gatherings with cooking and music naturally formed around the spring digging of ramps. Over the last 50 years, these gatherings evolved into festivals held to raise operating funds for rural fire departments, rescue squads, churches, and other community organizations. U.S. Forest Service scientist Jim Chamberlain started studying ramps and ramp festivals over 15 years ago. Over the years, he’s seen the demand for ramps skyrocket.
“Over the last couple of decades interest in these edible forest products spread to local farmers markets and to big city restaurants where world famous chefs want to cook with them,” says Chamberlain, research forest products technologist with the Southern Research Station (SRS). “Now, big food retail corporations are demanding these spring onions.”
With demand for the wild ramps increasing, harvesting may be affecting native populations.
Traditional ramp harvesters dig small clumps of ramps out of larger patches, leaving behind enough plants to form new patches, but new harvesters may be unaware of the practice. If harvesting levels keep rising, fewer plants will be left behind and populations may decline.
Forest farming of ramps offers an alternative to wild harvesting. “It’s important to think about the conservation and sustainable management of these plants,” says Chamberlain. “Forest farming can reduce the pressure on native populations while providing forest landowners with an alternative stream of income in the spring.”
Last year, Chamberlain partnered with Virginia Tech and Cornell University to produce a six-part video series about forest farming of ramps. The Ramps Forest Farming Video Series is provided to the public on a YouTube channel that was created as part of an eXtension project with support from SRS, the USDA National Agroforestry Center, and NIFA.
Over the course of the six-part series, Chamberlain provides detailed field-based information on:
- Ramp plants in the context of the forest;
- Sunlight and soil conditions needed for growing ramps;
- The stages of the ramp’s reproduction and life cycles;
- Instructions on how to build a raised bed for ramps in the forest;
- Identification and handling of double and triple ramp bulbs; and
- Siting and other considerations for putting in raised beds in the forest.
For more information, email Jim Chamberlain at firstname.lastname@example.org.