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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

I Have Spring and Wild Ramps on My Mind

"Ramps are the sweetest and the best of the wild onions. They have a mild onion flavor with a hint of garlic, which I find delicious." – Euell Gibbons

Spring is definitely in the air today here in the Blue Ridge Mountains and wild ramps, like the morel mushroom, are on a lot on people’s minds. Ramps are native to eastern North America, ranging from the rich, moist woodlands of Nova Scotia and southern Quebec, south through New England and the central Appalachian states, down into the cool upland portions of Georgia, and as far west as Iowa and Minnesota.

The ramp (Allium tricoccum), or wild leek, belongs to the same pungent genus as onions (A.cepa), chives (A. schoenoprasum), and garlic (A. sativum), with an odor something similar to that of garlic and onion.

The Appalachian name "ramp" comes from the British Isles, where a related plant, A.ursinum, grows wild. As one version has it, the English folk name "Ramson" (son of Ram), referred to the plant's habit of appearing during the sign of Aries; (March 20 to April 20) on the zodiac calendar. Another source indicates that the folk name was "ramsen," the plural form of an Old English word for wild garlic, "hramsa." The similarity between A. ursinum and A. tricoccum (wild ramp) in taste, appearance, and growth habit led early English settlers of Appalachia to call the latter by the English folk name, which later was shortened to "ramp."

To early Native American and, later, the white settlers, ramps were an important and welcome addition to the early spring menu. The fresh and tender-green ramp leaves with their strong onion-garlic taste were an improvement on the bland winter fare of dried fruits, pickled vegetables, nuts, beans, and dried beef or salt pork; they were regarded as a spring tonic that cleansed the blood.

Native Americans used ramps in decoctions to treat coughs and colds, and they made a poultice from the juice of the strong summer bulbs to alleviate the pain and itching of bee stings. The Menomini called them pikwute sikakushia (skunk plant), and they referred to an area near the southern shore of Lake Michigan, where ramps grew abundantly, as CicagaWuni or shikako (skunk place). The term was later applied to a white settlement now known as Chicago.
Beginning in late winter or very early spring, each bulb sends up two or three broad, smooth, ovate leaves--*similar to those of lily-of-the-valley--from the leaf litter on the forest floor.

Eventually growing 8 to 12 inches tall, these leaves show deep maroon streaking at the base and up along the parallel-veins. Ramps reproduce by both bulb offsets and seeds.

By late spring or early summer, as they become shaded by the new foliage of the forests deciduous canopy, the ramp's leaves wither and die, leaving only a single bud on a bare stalk. This bud opens in June or July to form a spherical cluster (umbel) of creamy white florets. Each quarter-inch flower has three sepals and three petals and produces a three-lobed seed capsule.

*A Word of Caution: The ovate leaves of the wild ramp are similar to those of lily-of-the-valley; please do not confuse the two because while the wild ramp is delicious, lily-of-the-valley is deadly!

On an earlier post called, “The Elusive Morel Mushroom,” Sandra, one of our fine writers here at the Blue Ridge Gazette, commented:

“Don't forget it's coming on ramp season as well! Oh those ramps as much as I love morels...tastelicious!”

I think that says it all!

Thanks to "Wildman" Steve Brill for the use his wonderful photos of wild ramps. For recipes, using wild ramps, and much more visit the "Wildman" Steve Brill’ website, Wild Food!

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