Saturday, March 31, 2012

Ramp Harvest!!

It's that time of year, when Ramps (also known as Wild Leeks) begin to carpet the forest floor with their brilliantly green, pungent, ephemeral beauty.  This post is dedicated to my views on sustainably and joyfully harvesting these spring treats.

Ramps are are a broad-leafed allium, with a mineral-rich onion/garlic taste, one of the first green things to come up in the spring.  They prefer the leaf litter of deciduous forests.  Once it starts getting shady from the leafing out of the trees, the ramp leaves yellow and die - yielding energy to flower and seed production.

The bulb portion gets a lot of attention as a wild substitute for leeks - but also like leeks, the tops are too often ignored :-(  Turns out they are delicious and versatile :-)  You can use them in soups, sautees, garnishes ... anything you would use onions, garlic, or leeks for ... fresh or dried, raw or cooked.  I HARVEST ONLY THE LEAVES now, because of what I've learned about the life cycles of ramps - it takes a number of years for the plants to grow from seed to maturity.
So typical harvesting sustainability rules suggest to only take from large patches, and no more than 1/6th of the plants or so … but even that seems too much.  Never harvest a flower stalk if you can help it.  Last year I harvested only the aerial portion of the plant - the two donkey-ear-like leaves.  This year I realized that it would be very certainly the best option to just take one leaf from any one plant.  This leaves some photosynthesizing capabilities for feeding the perennial bulb, ensuring a perennial harvest.

Another thing to be aware of as you harvest is that other fragile spring ephemerals are coming up - such as Blue Cohosh (look closely in the picture at the top of the page) and Trillium (pictured to the right).  Step with intention.  Not as fragile, but quite edible, is the cuter-than-heck and ubiquitous Trout Leaf (pictured below).

Now, having completed a thoroughly satisfying walk in the woods, and having gathered all the leaves you'll want or need for the day or for the year, be sure to give thanks in whatever way that feels right to you.  It's great to be thankful and appreciative with every leaf you pick, and also good to acknowledge the larger habitat that has supported the abundance of this delicious gift.

 Back at home, I would recommend drying the ramps.  Making pesto is also a favorite preservation method.  Harvesting only one leaf makes the processing very easy - no dirt involved, no parts to clip off.  I basically just tossed the ramp leaves (5 gallons of them) onto trays and put them in the dehydrator on a low temperature until they're completely dry and crumbly.   

 Be sure to store in a cool place in an air-tight container.  5 gallons of fresh leaves yielded 5 quarts of dried and partially-crumbled leaves to store.

That's the whole story for today ....  Happy Spring!!  And remember, harvest with sustainability and regeneration in mind.  Otherwise, the seemingly mild-mannered ramps will slowly impale you like they did this maple leaf.

 - Travis

P.S.  check out the seeds of the future generation of wild leeks!