|Ramps take advantage of the early spring sunlight to grow and store reserves in the root system before forest trees leaf out.
|Three-year-old ramp seedlings in seed flats.
By Heather McCargo
Ramps are a delicious wild edible food beloved by chefs and locavores. Also known as wild leeks (Allium tricoccum), they are a member of the onion family and are a perennial woodland wildflower native to the eastern deciduous forest from Canada to Georgia and west to the prairie states. In Maine ramps are known from only several dozen locations and are considered rare and in need of protection. Their preferred habitat is not common: moist, fertile soils under deciduous trees (such as sugar maple), frequently along rivers and streams. Ramps are often seen growing with other wildflowers indicative of rich woodland soils, such as blue cohosh, bloodroot and Dutchman's breeches. In healthy wild populations, hundreds of plants can carpet the forest floor with 8-inch-long and 2-inch-wide leaves.
Ramps are a true spring ephemeral, taking advantage of the early spring sunlight to grow and store reserves in the root system before trees leaf out. The foliage stays green for less than six weeks before fading to yellow and then completely disappearing. In midsummer, white, globe-shaped flower clusters emerge and attract pollinating insects. When the shiny black seeds ripen in September, it takes a sharp eye to find them as no leaves are present, and the green and tan seed stalks blend in with other vegetation.
Most people do not realize that the life cycle of this woodland wildflower is incredibly slow compared with commonly cultivated members of the onion family. For instance the common garden leek can grow from seed to full size in a single growing season. Ramp seeds can take a year or more to germinate, and the plants begin to flower only after seven years. Foragers commonly harvest the whole plant, which obviously kills it. To have a sustainable harvest on such a slowly growing wildflower requires harvesting a very small percentage of adult plants, probably less than 5 percent, and returning to that patch only every five to 10 years. Some foragers just cut the leaves off at soil level, preserving the bulb and roots – clearly more sustainable than removing the whole plant. However, cutting the tops does prevent that plant from photosynthesizing for the year.
More organic growers should propagate ramps in order to reduce pressures on wild populations. Fortunately, such shade-loving perennial species require much less regular attention than typical field-grown plants. Once you set up and plant the beds, you need only visit them occasionally to check on them and apply extra water in a drought. Your operation will take at least five years to be up and running, but you will have a desirable (and high-value), low-maintenance crop that can be harvested on wet, early spring days when you cannot do other farming tasks. I have been propagating and growing ramps for more than 25 years. My cultivation recommendations follow.
Making the Beds
In the shade of deciduous trees, make a series of low raised beds edged with lumber or logs and amend the soil with lots of well rotted leaves. Build up to 10 beds eventually so that each year you harvest plants from only one bed, leaving the other beds to grow. Composted leaves and aged deciduous (not conifer) bark are the best soil amendments for this plant. If your soil is very low in organic matter and nutrients, some compost could be added initially. Yearly mulching with leaves should take care of the long-term nutrient requirements of this species.
|Ramps support pollinators.
|Tiny black seeds can be collected in September.
Stocking the Beds
Ramp seeds ripen in September and can be sown immediately upon collection into your prepared bed and mulched with a 2-inch layer of leaves. Cover the bed with rabbit wire screening to prevent squirrels from digging. You can also sow seeds into large flats or crates. Just remember that they will need more frequent watering than in ground beds.
They will germinate after the second spring. Growing from seed may seem slow, but it takes very little time to do and is the best way to build up big populations for future harvests. Because your bed is in the shade and is well mulched with aged leaves, weeds should be minimal.
To speed germination, you can mixed the seeds with moist vermiculite and store them in a Ziploc bag for 60 days at room temperature, then move the bag to the refrigerator for another 90 days to simulate winter. After this moist, cold period, sow seeds outside in spring. This will get you a year ahead. This speeds germination because after the seeds ripen in September, the embryo is still immature and needs a couple of months more of warmth to continue developing. In the South this happens naturally after seed ripening with a warmer fall. In the North, embryos typically do not mature until the next summer, so germination takes an extra year. The risk of this speeding-up method is that seeds may rot or be forgotten in the refrigerator.
You could, alternatively, purchase plants to stock your beds. Fall is the ideal time to do this because after the seeds ripen the plants are dormant. Very early spring is the other option. Starting with some mature plants will provide your own source of seeds, and you should develop a regular habit of annually seeding ramps.
A final benefit of grown ramps organically is that many wild-harvested plants come from polluted soils along Maine's river floodplains. You will be able to market your plants as organically grown while relieving pressure on our diminishing wild populations of ramps.
Let's start propagating ramps so that we can all enjoy this delicious, native delicacy in the years ahead.
Wild Ramps in Maine
Seeds or plants
Fernwood Nursery & Gardens, Montville, Maine
Nasami Farm, Whately, Mass.
Prairie Moon Nursery, Winona, Minn.
Wild Seed Project, Blue Hill, Maine
Heather McCargo is executive director of The Wild Seed Project, a Maine 501(c)3 that sells seeds of wild-type native plants and educates the public on propagation techniques to encourage increasing native plant populations. For more information visit its educational website, http://wildseedproject.net.