Allium tricoccum, wild leeks, or ramps - as they are affectionately known to most Appalachians - are part of a cultural tradition despite their pungent and lingering odor. Native to North America, the ramp is a wild onion having a strong aroma. Though the bulb of the ramp resembles a scallion, the flat, broad leaves of the ramp distinguish them. Ramps are prolific in Appalachia, growing from South Carolina all the way to Canada.
Before the days of greenhouses, genetically engineered foods, or even importing foods, winter was a time when supplies of fresh fruits and vegetables were extremely limited in Appalachia. Appalachian folks often were deficient in certain nutrients caused by the lack of fresh produce.
As one of the season's first green vegetables, ramps were thought to be a "spring tonic" for winter ailments. Ramps are a good source of vitamin C, which can be lacking from the starchy or protein-laden foods most often eaten in winter.
Ramps are found throughout Appalachia in cool, shady areas with damp, rich soil high in organic matter such as fallen leaves. Ramps in West Virginia can be found in shaded, forested hollows. They grow especially well in the Monongahela National Forest on the eastern side of the state where the elevation is higher and the temperatures somewhat cooler.
The ramp has broad, lily-like leaves that emerge from the perennial bulb in early spring; usually late March or early April, before the tree canopy develops. Ramp digging can be done throughout April and early May. Smaller, more tender ramps can be found earlier, with larger, more potent ramps available in May.
To dig ramps, gently rake away fallen leaves covering the ramps. Dig a mattock into the soil uphill of the ramps, making sure to go deep enough not to cut the bulbs. Push the mattock handle upwards and the ramps will come up in a clump. Hold the clump of ramps by the leaves and beat them gently against the ground to remove the dirt. Store unclean ramps in a shady place or put clean ramps with a paper towel in a resealable plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Do not gather all the ramps in one patch to prevent overharvesting. Ramps take six to 18 months to germinate and five to seven years to produce seeds. Because the seeds are vitally important to replenish wild ramp patches, taking small, immature, or flowering ramps is discouraged. It could take 20 years or more for an extensively harvested ramp patch to rejuvenate.
You can grow your own ramp patch in a cool, shady place by collecting ramp seeds in August or September and planting them. Seeds are found in the white flowers on a leafless stalk. The seeds are small, hard and black. Sown seeds may show growth the following spring or the spring after.
I love ramps most any way they are cooked (I can't stomach them raw), but my favorite recipe is my mom's soon-to-be-famous potato-ramp soup. Her recipe is below.
5 large or 8 medium potatoes,
peeled and chopped
2 cups chopped ramps, with
bulb and leaves
3 stalks of celery, chopped
2 cups water
1 teaspoon each of salt, pepper, and garlic powder (or to taste)
1 can (12 oz.) evaporated milk
1 Tablespoons dried parsley
Milk, if needed
Combine potatoes, ramps, and celery in 8 quart stock pot. Add 2 cups of water (water should not cover potatoes). Stir in desired amount of salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Boil potato mixture until potatoes are fork-tender (about 20 minutes). Do not drain. Mash potatoes with a potato masher or fork. Add evaporated milk, butter, and parsley. Stir. If mixture is too thick, add milk until the desired consistency is reached. Bring to steaming, but not boiling. Can be served immediately; however, flavors combine better if the soup sits for 15 to 20 minutes before serving.
Facemire, G. (2010). Having your ramps and eating them too. Parsons, W.Va.: McClain Printing Company.
McCallum, B. (1983). Mom and ramps forever. Charleston, W.Va.: Mountain State Press.
Page, L. G., & Wigginton, E. (Ed.). (1984). The foxfire book of Appalachian cookery. New York: Gramercy Books.
Sen, I. (2011, April 20). Digging for ramps: too deep? The New York Times, p. D1.
Sohn, M.F. (2005). Appalachian home cooking: history, culture, & recipes. Lexington, Ky: The University Press of Kentucky.
Swecker, Dawn. Personal Interview by Hannah Fincham. 28 07 2011.
Wigginton, E. (Ed.). (1973). Foxfire 2. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press.
Hannah Fincham, WVU Families and Health Extension Agent, serves Barbour and Randolph counties
304-636-2455 or 304-457-3254.