Ramps, part 1: Wild Delicacies Under the Forest Floor
By Bjorn Bergman | Photo By Bjorn Bergman 1
Spring! Ode to Spring! I am singing right now because it is my favorite time of the year to cook with local foods. After going through such a long stretch of winter making soups and roasted veggies with root vegetable after root vegetable, my palate is longing for the first fresh morsel of spring. Specifically it longs for the oniony and garlicky goodness of locally harvested wild ramps.
Ramps (Allium tricoccum), also known as a spring onions, wild leeks and wild garlic, are a wild perennial native to eastern North America. They have a bright white onion-like bulb found beneath the soil that leads to a stunning burgundy stem topped by one, two or three broad, lance-shaped leaves. The entire plant is edible and has a delightfully unique aroma that is best described as a mix of its closest relatives, garlic, onions and leeks, also in the Allium family. As a food, they are extremely versatile and delicious. The blubs can be used in place of any edible Allium, and the leaves can be used like any fresh green. Use your imagination; they will be delicious any way you prepare them.
I was introduced to this springtime perennial ephemeral in early 2009 while working in a friend’s maple forest near Cashton, Wis. I dug them up, brought them home, lightly sautéed the bulbs and stems in butter and added them with the greens to a pizza. One taste and I fell in love.
I have always been fascinated by wild foods, but ramps blow my mind. They encapsulate so many things that I love to eat: garlic, onions and fresh greens. And they grow on their own in the forest, no need to coax and coddle along. They just grow.
While they do grow on their own in the wild, they are a finicky species. In order to flourish, they need rich fertile soil, plenty of moisture, and shade from the harsh rays of sun for much of the year. Lucky for us, Southwestern Wisconsin is well-endowed with rolling hills and valleys populated with lush deciduous forests that provide perfect conditions for the wild ramp.
Within our hills and valleys, they are most often found among maple trees on moisture-rich north-facing slopes beginning in mid- to late-March. At this time, temperatures rise above 32 degrees F during the day and ramps wake from their winter slumber. Their burgundy sprouts poke through the leaf litter, and soon thereafter, their wide dark green leaves unfurl. When full grown, their leaves stand about 8-12 inches above the forest floor.