Saturday, April 25, 2015

Ramp On

Ramps! I'd forgotten about them, curious as that is because I did have plans to plant them at some point in the future. As with any forage, I questioned my instinct, and kneeled down for a leaf tear. Unmistakable onion scent, however more, um, woodsy, earthy, funky even, with the slightest floral essence.  The taste? Earthy, mild onion and exceptionally sweet (especially after our 30 degree nights). Our ramp is Allium tricoccum var. burdickii, a contested species or variation of the Allium tricoccum found at ramp festivals of Appalachia and farmers' markets of the North American east.

I stood admiring my patch, how wonderful the woods can be, until the creaking timbers above my head urged me on. As I continued my walk I discovered another four or five small patches. A number low enough to recall each without resorting to markers or maps. Consistent preference for slopes (prompting Betsy to humorously suggest it as another origin of its name) and well-shaded, summering sites suggested that they should have blanketed our shady, sloping woods.

The next day, cool and damp after a decent rain, I stepped into a woods of rain softened, pliable leaves under foot. I floated. Squirrels and chipmunks went about their business unaware of my approach, but wary were the ducks that fluttered into flight the moment the chorus of frogs went silent. No matter, I wasn't out in soft shoes and sweater to see the ducks, I was out to collect a few ramps for dinner.

I began to spot more and more ramp colonies, in all corners of the woods, although mostly out back and along the south-facing side slope. They grew under most species of trees, often near the trunk, nearly always on a slope, yet in one instance on a flat near the great wetland. In all cases an abundance of leaf litter, and in none was there any garlic mustard (although prevalent nearby in at least a couple of locations). There are so many patches that I, like a squirrel forgetting his buried nuts, can hardly remember a portion of them. This is for the best, as there is plenty for the two of us, and we must ensure the continuance of the species.

Our ramps belong to the variation burdickii. The common ramp grows in dense colonies, with relatively large leaves, and most strikingly shows red or purple coloration just above the bulb along the lower stem. A variation burdickii colony shows fewer individual plants, has somewhat shorter, more slender leaves, and does not show purple coloration on its all-white stem. Burdickii flowers significantly earlier than its counterpart and is also more likely to reproduce from seed due, in part, to the colony's open habit.

Along with the popularity of ramps in restaurants and home kitchens, they have become abundant at New York area farmers' markets and on foragers' tables. New York State has declared Allium tricoccum var. burdickii as endangered, placing it on its protected native species list. It cannot be legally wild-harvested, although Allium tricoccum is still open to harvesting (for now). Given the rarity of burdickii, it is unlikely that you will find much of it in New York, but if you do, don't harvest.

If you find yourself salivating over a patch of ramps, check for a dense colony habit, then pull away some soil to look for purple coloration on the lower stem. If you're sure you've got the right ramp, only pluck a few whole plants from each colony, or better, just clip a single leaf from several plants. Ramps take several years to mature, and several more if the colony is severely depleted, so please contain your harvest zeal. The bulbs may be four inches below the soil surface, so dig deeply with a long, slender trowel without disturbing or severing several neighboring bulbs. Do not trample ramps or other plants on your way to them and be mindful of seedlings along the edges of the colony. Finally, beware of causing soil erosion on the wooded slopes ramps prefer.

In our woods we will tread lightly, doing what we can to minimize competitors like garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, and take a measured harvest. Tomorrow I'll cut a few new leaves to eat with eggs. Sure, I cook, but here's a local chef with the real ramps recipes.

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If I do not respond to your comment right away, it is only because I am busy pulling out buckthorn, creeping charlie, and garlic mustard...