Just like fiddleheads and truffles, wild leeks are considered an ephemeral delicacy, available for only a short period of the year. This is only one of the reasons that make the wild leek so beloved.
If you haven’t tried a wild leek yet, they are similar to scallions but more garlicky. They possess a unique combination of sweet and pungent making them both great as a star of a dish, as well as a side kick. Here are 10 wild facts you may not already know about wild leeks:
1. ’Wild Leeks’ go by many names, including: wood leeks, spring onions, and ramp - derived from ramson which came from hramsa, meaning “wild garlic” in Old English. The most popular title to use in the Ontario region is ‘ramps’.
2. Ramps are native to Canada. There are very few household comestibles that originate from Canada. Most fruits and vegetables have been brought over and cultivated throughout history. Wild leeks, ahem, ramps, grow wild in the Northeast and Midwest of Canada and all the way down the U.S., into the Appalachians.
3. Ramps are the wild sibling of the Liliacaeae family. Other members include garlic, asparagus, chives, shallots, onions, and leeks. Ramps are closest to their sister plant, the scallion but ramps have one to two flat broad leaves and do not have a hollow tube like a scallion.
4. If ramps were on LinkedIn, you’d find them under their professional title: Allium tricoccum. They were first named as such in by the Scottish botanist William Aiton in 1789. The epithet triccocum refers to the possession of its’ three seeds.
5. The U.S. city Chicago was named after an overgrowth of ramps. In the 17th century, Chicago had an overgrowth of ramps near the Chicago River. Local native tribes thought the plant was Allium cernuum, the nodding wild onion, and titled the river as such by the plant's indigenous name, shikaakwa (chicagou). It now stands corrected (by 1990s research) that the overgrowth was actually the ramp.
6. Equivalent to the first glimpse of pedestrians in shorts and a jacket, ramps are the first ephemeral stems to appear after a long winter. Depending on the year, you can spot ramps beginning in late April or early May.
7. Pre-19th century, ramps were believed to ward off many winter ailments. After all, ramps were the first fresh greens to appear after a long cold winter. They are quite high in vitamin C, as well as a special sulphur compound known as kaempferol that is also in garlic and helps protect the heart.
8. Ramps are a protected species in the province of Quebec, under the Quebec Legislation. A person can harvest no more than 50 plants a year (for personal consumption only).
Wild Leeks are indeed listed as endangered in many areas of the US and in Quebec and are listed as "threatened" in Nova Scotia. In Ontario there are issues around conservation, but our province is not in as quite a dire situation as they haven't had the same long-time popularity here as they had in other areas. At Fresh City, we use two primary Ontario foragers -- the amish mennonite group of farmers collectively known as HOPE Eco Farms, and Cindy Ablett. HOPE only picks the largest bulbs on their own lands and do not out-source for additional supply. This means that on their lands, we only get what they know they can sustainably harvest without threatening future year harvests. They want to keep harvesting them too, and they know that over-harvesting means the end of their wild leek sales in the future, so we only get what they can harvest and we build them into our produce bags in the numbers that they tell us they have -- not the other way around. In the case of wild leeks, the foragers are dictating how many we can sell. The same is true for Cindy Ablett. Her family lease many acres of land up north in the Algonquin area, and her family has been sustainably harvesting for years under the same principles - they only take what they know they can without ruining future harvests. So again, we only get and plan for what they can supply.
Sustainable harvesting tips:
- Harvest the fat bulbed ramps only.
- Concentrate on the centre of the patch.
- Harvest a small percent of the ramp patch to ensure regrowth.
9. Ramps find homes in shaded, moist, deciduous woods.
Remember: If you are harvesting ramps, know what you are harvesting (Lily-of-the-Valley is similar looking but very poisonous). The difference? Lily-of-the-Valley grows in old farmlands and doesn’t have an onion/garlic scent.
10. They taste great in a crepe! Cut off the hairy ends, rinse thoroughly and scrub any excess dirt from the bulbs. You can also enjoy ramps cooked in butter or bacon fat fried until soft. Or as a pesto for salads, pastas, and sandwiches. Pickle them, grill them, or soup them! Just remember to share while they last!
How to Store: Roll ramps in a damp paper towel, place in an unsealed bag, and keep them in the fridge. Ramps will stay fresh for up to 2 weeks.