Posted by: ithacaisdoomed | April 10, 2010

In Praise of the Wild Leek

I don’t know what the weather has been like where you are, but in Ithaca, it’s been totally freakish. After a week with highs in the 80’s, we just experienced a freeze warning last night. The high temperatures triggered a massive wave of flowering, particularly among cherry trees.  I was out last evening wrapping my Nanking Cherries in row cover to prevent a total loss.  They were in full flower.  Luckily, the peaches had only a few open flowers and the apples have not yet bloomed.  Even more fortunate, we did not get the frost because the cloud cover stayed in place.  It’s a rare day that I actually wish for clouds in this seemingly perpetually grey land.

 Another group of plants that have bloomed early this year are the Spring Ephemerals, two to three weeks early by my reckoning.  It started last week with the Hepatica and continued to the point that, as of yesterday, the Trillium and Blue Cohosh were about to flower.  Mayapples are even coming up in some places.  We can’t have “April Apples” now can we? 

One plant that has been particularly welcome to these eyes and stomach is the Wild Leek, Allium tricoccum.  Ramps, as they were dubbed by early English settlers in Virginia due to their similarity to the Wild Garlic, or “ramson,” as they were called in the Elizabethan dialect, were something I first met in the southern Appalachians.  Down south, they were something of a rarity.  It was to my great delight that I found them growing in profusion here in the forests of the Finger Lakes, carpeting the forest floor in green usually around mid-April.

Harvest ramps from a stand that looks like this:)

 

If you harvest ramps, cut them from the lower stem, since the bulb will keep growing and eventually set seed, sometime in late summer.  Also, don’t take more than 10% of a stand so as not to impact the wild population.  They are obviously profuse and able to hold their own quite well, but ramps are threatened in some places, such as Quebec, due to over-harvesting.

From forest to kitchen sink...

For the Iroquois and for early white settlers, ramps were the first spring green.  They’re high in vitamin C and must have been a welcome addition to the diet after a winter of dried fruit and salted meat.  It’s as a sautéed green that I find them to be best.  They’re wonderful as a side dish, whole ramps sautéed in olive oil, or cut up and sautéed until wilted as I did for this noodle salad of wild ramps with roasted cauliflower and sun-dried tomato.  I read of someone using them in Kim chi which sounds very exciting.  I’d also imagine you could dry them for use as a seasoning or ingredient in soup base.

sautéed ramps, roasted cauliflower, and balsamic vinegar! Yum!

 

In England, ramsons are popular as a Forest Garden plant.  I have transplanted many clumps of A. tricoccum to my own property.  These were collected from a friend’s land where there were enough to gather a few clumps from diverse spots without impacting the overall distribution of the plant.  I’m imagining I’m helping the plant to spread its genes farther a field, but do be careful and respectful of the overall population in an area when either collecting or transplanting them.  After the plants set see, I rake back the leaf litter from around them and scatter the seeds in late summer, hoping that the effort will pay off in an entire carpet of them before too long.  Ramps like to grow under Maples, Beech, and Birch.  I’ve also seen them growing around Oaks.  Here’s a good page about ramp cultivation.

 Ramps have gained enough popularity lately, thanks to shows like Iron Chef that they’ve been picked up by the “foodie” crowd.  Now farmers in upstate New York can fulfill every Upstater’s dream of selling “weeds” to city folk at astronomical prices.  Actually, you can do that right here in Ithaca, selling ramps to people who moved here from New York City at the Ithaca Farmer’s Market.  Once you’ve befriended them, take them out to the woods and teach them how to gather this wonderful delicacy on their own.  To paraphrase the old Chinese saying:  “Sell a man a ramp, and you feed him for a day while turning him into a sucker.  Teach a man to find a ramp, and you feed his soul for life.”

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