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Garden Improvement Information Series

Ramps, aka Wild Leeks

Ramps, (Allium tricoccum or Allium tricoccum var. burdickii, Alliaceae) also known as wild leeks, are native to the deciduous forests of eastern North America. Ramps can be found growing in patches in rich, moist, deciduous forests as far north as Southern Eastern Canada, west to Missouri and Minnesota, the Great Lakes region, and the Appalachian mountain region as far south as North Carolina and Tennessee.
As one of the first plants to emerge in the spring, ramps were traditionally consumed as the seasons first "greens." They were considered a spring tonic because they provided some of the necessary vitamins and minerals following long winter months without access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Ramps are pleasant to eat and taste like spring onions with a strong garlic-like aroma. They are often prepared by frying in butter or pork fat with sliced potatoes or scrambled eggs. In the Great Lakes region, where ramps are called wild leeks, they are fried with animal fat and freshly caught smelt. The smelt arrive at the many creeks dumping into the Great Lakes just about in time for the harvest of the wild leeks. Ramps or wild leeks are also used as an ingredient in other dishes such as soup, pancakes, and hamburgers. They can also be pickled or dried for use later in the year.

Ramps are a spring ephemeral plant that can be found in the cool shady areas of deciduous forests with damp, rich soil that is high in organic matter. New leaves emerge from the perennial bulb in early spring, usually late March or early April, before the tree canopy of the forest develops. By mid May, the ramp leaves begin to die back and a flower stalk emerges. Thus, the annual growth period is limited to a few weeks between the time when the plants emerge and the tree canopy closes. About the time that the leaves begin to die back, a single long flower stalk with a seed pod and a flower at the end begins to develope. The flower blooms in June and the seeds mature at the top at the end of this leafless stalk. The seeds develope and eventually the seeds fall to the ground to germinate near the mother plant.

Here is the northern side of the Olympic Mountains of Western Washington, we are growing ramps, or as some call them, wild leeks. We have selected an area of our forest to plant and grow wild leeks. The area we choose is mixture of Big Leave Maples, Red Alder, and a few Scarlet Oaks, and European Beach trees. The soil is rich, cool, moist and high in organic matter. The soil has few rocks and drains well. These deciduous trees provide a continuous supply of leaves each year to maintain the rich upper soil.

We started our three wild leek patches by collecting the wild leek seeds from our family farm in Northern Michigan, and from a ramp grower in West Virginia. We collected over 800 ramp seeds. These seeds were planted in wooden and plastic growing trays, that were about 8 inches deep. The potting soil used was a mixture of 50% forest soil from the area in which they were to be planted later, and 50% commercial potting soil, with fertilizer. The trays were then placed in a shady area of the forest, set above the ground, in an area safe from slugs and other problems. We then grew and tended the young wild leeks as would any other plant that we grow in our forestry nursery. The young wild leeks remained in the growing trays for two years, then after the plants have gone dormant in early fall of the second year, we removed the ramp bulbs and planted the remaining ramp bulbs in the ground in our forest.
All are doing great for their third year, and we hope to collect some seeds from this first batch of wild leeks this year. Maybe, we will sample some next year, cooked with smelt. By the way we still go back to Michigan each year in the Spring to collect fresh leek bulbs, have a meal of wild leeks at the farm, and then again later for more seeds.
Our goal is to establish a strong long lasting presence of wild leeks in our forest here in the Olympic mountains. Because we love wild leeks and we like the challenge.

UPDATE: We have have added more wild leek bulbs to our three patches and started a new bigger one down by the creek. Now after six years, our four wild leek patches now total an estimated well over 10,000 thousand plants, and now are well established here in our forest on our family farm, we call Grand Point Farms.

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