Wild Leeks (Ramps)
Wild leeks are native to the eastern North American mountains. They can be found growing in patches in rich, moist, deciduous forests and bottoms from as far north as Canada, west to Missouri and Minnesota, and south to North Carolina and Tennessee. In early spring, ramps send up smooth, broad, lily-of-the-valley-like leaves that disappear by summer before the white flowers appear. The bulbs have the pleasant taste of sweet spring onions with a strong garlic-like aroma.
Caution: Lily of the valley is a poisonous look alike. The easiest way to make sure they are wild leeks is to crush the leaves and take a sniff. If it smells like garlic it is not Lily of the Valley.
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The leaves and bulbs are edible.
Ramps first became a marketable commodity in 1966, when the USDA began to promote wild crafting as a means of improving the local economies of south-central Appalachia. The area is still known today for its focus on traditional uses of plant foods and medicines (Cavender 2006). Wild leeks have a variety of traditional medical uses and have properties that lend them to potentially be developed into modern medicines to treat more serious diseases. As some of the first greens to emerge in the spring, wild leeks are an integral part of a vitamin and mineral tonic many use to promote health after the long winter months (Davis and Greenfield 2002). They have also been used as a preventative measure against colds and the flu, as well as for part of a cure for scurvy (Legault 2003; Feiring 2006). For these uses, the plant is best consumed whole, and is eaten either raw or fried. Also, the plant is used as a purging tool for disease prevention and treatment to clean both the blood and the digestive system (Cavender 2006). Some evidence points toward the ability of wild leeks to lower cholesterol and lipid counts in the blood (Cavender 2006).
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Over-harvesting has become a concern for many conservationists. You should be careful on the amount of leeks you intend on harvesting in one area. Small patches of leeks can be over-harvested leaving nothing for the upcoming season.
Depending on what you plan on using the leeks for, you might just harvest the leaves, leaving the bulb in the ground. Ideally the leaves should be around 6 inches long and 2 inches wide, for the mildest flavor.
Methods for harvest include digging the whole patch, harvesting a portion of a patch, or thinning out and harvesting just the largest plants. Do not harvest plants until they have filled the site, have large bulbs, and have flowered.
If whole plots are harvested at one time, it is recommended to have enough plots to allow for a 5 to 7 year rotation. That is, to have continuous harvest year after year, harvest only one-fifth or one-seventh of your production area each year. When harvesting a portion of a plot, no more than 15% of the ramps should be removed. If the thinning method is used, great care should be taken not to damage plants that are not harvested. Based on research done on wild population, harvests should be limited to 5 to 10% of the plants in each plot.
If harvesting bulbs from the wild make sure to cover the hole that is left with leaves from the forest floor. Exposed soil leaves an opening for invasive species like garlic mustard to root and take over.
Cavender, A. 2006. Folk medical uses of plant foods in southern Appalachia, United States. Journal of Ethno pharmacology 108:74-84.
Davis, J.M. and J. Greenfield. 2002. Cultivating ramps: Wild leeks of Appalachia. p. 449-452.
In: J. Janick and A. Whipkey (eds.), Trends in new crops and new uses. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.
Feiring, Alice. 2006. “Into the woods, on the trail of the wild leek.” New York Times. New York Times, 14 Apr. 2006. Web. 1 Apr. 2012.