Each spring, the mountainsides are crawling with people scouring the ground, armed with walking sticks and digging tools, in search of a few tiny green leaves. But they aren’t looking for just any green leaves. They are looking for a long-celebrated rite of spring – the delicious, though pungent, ramp.
Allium tricoccum, commonly known as ramp, spring onion, ramson, wild leek, wood leek and wild garlic, is a North American species of wild onion widespread across eastern Canada and the eastern United States. It is a bulb-forming perennial with broad, smooth, light green leaves, often with deep purple or burgandy tints on the lower stems, and a scallion-like stalk and bulb. Both the white lower leaf stalks and the broad green leaves are edible. The flower stalk appears after the leaves have died back, unlike the similar Allium ursinum, in which leaves and flowers can be seen at the same time. Ramps grow in close groups strongly rooted just beneath the surface of the soil. In Canada, ramps are considered a rare delicacy. Ramps are considered a species of “special concern” for conservation in Maine, Rhode Island and Tennessee. They are also considered “commercially exploited” in Tennessee.
Ramp festivals may encourage harvest in unsustainable quantities.
According to West Virginia University botanist Earl L. Core, the widespread use in southern Appalachia of the term “ramps” (as opposed to “wild leek” which is used elsewhere in the United States) derives from Old English.
The name ramps (usually plural) is one of the many dialectical variants of the English word ramson, a common name of the European bear leek (Allium ursinum), a broad-leaved species of garlic, much cultivated and eaten in salads, a plant related to our American species. The Anglo-Saxon ancestor of ramson was hramsa, and ramson was the Old English plural, the n being retained as in oxen, children, etc. The word is cognate with rams, in German, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, and with the Greek kromuon, for garlic. Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (1904) lists as variants rame, ramp, ramps, rams, ramsden, ramsey, ramsh, ramsies, ramsy, rommy, and roms, mostly from northern England and Scotland.
The inhabitants of Appalachia have long celebrated spring with the appearance of the ramp, believing it to be a tonic capable of warding off many winter ailments. It is believed the ramp’s vitamin and mineral content did help to bolster the health of people who went without green vegetables throughout the winter. Although many people enjoy the delicious plant, there are warnings that go along with it.
The odor it leaves behind is extremely strong, and could possibly annoy your friends and coworkers. Some people have even been asked to leave school after enjoying a good old-fashioned ramp feed.
Ramps like rich, moist soil, and are frequently found in shady patches in low-lying areas. Avoid marshes or swamps, as they cannot grow in standing water. Some guides say ramps like sandy soil. But one thing is for certain – ramps don’t just automatically grow in great abundance, due to so many people digging them up with roots still attached.
Be courteous of the next season. When you are out digging ramps, be sure to cut off the very bottom of the bulb and leave the roots intact under the soil. That way more of those delicious little stinkers will be around for next spring’s harvest.
Many people enjoy digging ramps, and even more enjoy eating them. One of them is “Uncle” Tom Melko.
Melko is what some would call a ramp fanatic, as he stores them and eats them year-round.
“I absolutely love ramps,” Melko said. “I put them on everything. And the funny thing is, the first time I ever ate a ramp was back in 2006. Originally, I am from western Pennsylvania. I then moved around over the years, from New Jersey to Florida and everywhere in between. I was living down in Naples, Florida, and I had some buddies who invited me to go fly fishing. I love to fish, so naturally I accepted. We came up to Martinsburg, which is where they were from, and went fishing at all the best spots. Well, one year, we decided to stay at the old Hermitage Motel [in Bartow], and I absolutely fell in love with the place. My wife and I ended up buying a house up here as a camp, and little by little, we decided we were done with the heat and humidity of Florida, and decided to go ahead and move on up here. And that was when I tried my first ramp, and fell in love with them.
“Now I go every spring. I only hunt for them in the spring, but I make sure I get enough that I can freeze to last me through the whole year. I also pickle them. You generally want to pickle the ones from later on in the spring, as they have the bigger bulbs. You take the leaves off, and set them aside for another recipe.”
8 ounces of bulbs
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Put it all in a pint jar. Keep refrigerated, and you will have a delicious compliment to any meal.
“Now, on to the leaves you set aside,” Melko continued. “You can dehydrate them and crush them up, mix with your favorite herbs and spice, and use it as a garnish for any meal. I always use my own secret recipe, which I like to call ‘Uncle Tom’s Mountain Mojo.’ It is absolutely delicious, and goes great on anything – like my favorite, ramp pizza, or my ultimate breakfast, Juevos ‘Ramperos.’
“It is really up to you as to what you use the ramps for, as I believe they can bring a little spice to any dish. And you can trust Uncle Tom!”