As Spring approaches in Southeastern Ohio, some wide, flat leaves will begin to sprout all around this region beneath the canopy of our dense forests: wild ramps. The bright green, onion-like vegetables are the darling of many foodies, but they are also an indigenous superstar of Ohio’s Appalachian region. Strolling through one of the region’s forests in April or May, one might come across the first ramps breaking through the fertile soil or might just smell the oniony, garlicky scent of the pungent spring favorite.
Richwood, West Virginia has taken people’s obsession with ramps to an entirely new level, with the creation of a Ramp Festival. The city in Nicholas County in Central West Virginia has taken to calling itself the ramp capital of the world. Locals tell the story of the editor of one of the town’s newspapers adding the smelly onion’s juices to his printing ink, something the post office made him promise he’d never do again.
Although ramps grow in forests and sprout up in random places all over the eastern United States and Canada, they take about four years to reproduce and flower. That means that if all of the ramps are pulled from an area one year, it will be unlikely that a good crop of them will sprout up the next year. It also leads to irresponsible harvesting which takes ramps out of the ground before they’re fully mature.
This problem has led to ramp shortages and even farmers market fights over ramps, which are also called wild leeks. In 1995, ramps were listed as a vulnerable species in Quebec and commercial foraging for the wild onions was banned. As demand remains high, a sort of black market in ramps has developed. Parts of the United States followed Quebec’s lead, including parts of Tennessee and North Carolina also banned harvesting ramps in Smoky Mountain National Park. The ban was put in place after studies showed that the only way to preserve the plant’s population was to harvest 10% or less each year.
Another possible solution for the over-harvesting of ramps dates back many years to when ramps were consistently harvested by the Cherokee. Their early sustainability efforts involved cutting off ramps above the bulb and the roots, so the base of the plant remained intact and could continue to grow.
What are Ramp Lovers to do?
Ramp farms are a rare thing, even in the self-proclaimed Ramp Capital of the World. The slow-growing plant doesn’t make yearly harvesting very easy or very profitable, despite the plant’s popularity. Many individual people have planted ramp gardens in their yards and communities to ensure that, each year, more ramps are slowly growing to try to meet the demand.
Besides encouraging responsible harvesting techniques like those used by the Cherokee, United Plant Savers has a guide to ramps and cultivating them on private lands and gardens. Ramps seeds can be planted, or the bulbs can be planted, and once they produce seeds, those seeds can be added to the plot. Ramp harvesting can be slow-going, and each year yields a small harvest, but each Spring, the strong-smelling onions find their way into many tasty recipes.