Updated: Feb 23
After another very drawn out end to winter punctuated by sporadic flurries of snow, we here in Central Vermont are finally noticing the plants beginning to wake up in the hills and woodlands around us. Songbirds, like the robins currently nesting in our barn, are returning in ever greater frequency. This year's great salamander crossing has come and gone, and we are relishing the return of the orchestra of Spring Peepers that eases us into each evening. There is a certain giddiness that accompanies this time of year. We feel potential and possibility, and certainly this feeling is much more welcome this year as we collectively weather the heaviness and anxiety of a global pandemic.
Spring's mark in the woodlands here in the Northeast is particularly special. With each passing day a multitude of new plants emerge from the moist soils, pushing aside fallen leaves to shoot towards pockets of sun. Of the many ephemerals that characterize this season, Wild Leeks are perhaps one of the most delighted over with their pungent, garlicy aroma and vibrant sheathing leaves. However, with the ever rising popularity of wildcrafting and the "wild food" movement, this tender species have been unfortunately been exposed to gross over-harvesting to the point of notable species loss. United Plant Savers (UPS), a non-profit focused on research, education, and conservation of native medicinal plants and their habitats, has recently listed ramps, also known as ramps, on their "Species To Watch" list. In some locations, including Tennessee, New York, Maine, and Rhode Island, ramps have been also classified as "Endangered", "Threatened", and "Commercially Exploited" (USDA, 2020). Thankfully, this has not been met with ignorance as many conservationist groups, like UPS, and dedicated herbalists seek to educate the masses on protecting our wild plant relatives. As foragers ourselves, we find it only right that we, too, disseminate some information on this wonderful spring ephemeral so we can all enjoy and respect its presence for generations to come. So for this month's Materia Medica series installment, we give you: Allium tricoccum.
Wild Leeks (Allium tricoccum)
Wild Leeks (Allium tricoccum)
Allium tricoccum var. burdickii (formerly A. burdickii)
Common Names: Ramps, Wild Leeks, Ramsons (UPS, 2020). According to some sources, the term "ramps" is thought to have origins in the British Isles. Settlers correlated this wild plant with a chive species (A. ursinum) native to Europe and Asia, known as "Bear Leek" or "Ramson" (Edgar et al, 2012). The Menomini call the Allium tricoccum species “pikwu’tc sikaku’shia”, also translated as “the skunk”, a reference to its pungent aroma (Edgar et al, 2012).
Historically the whole plant has been used in culinary and therapeutic preparations, however the leaves are considered the most responsible parts to use to ensure natural reproduction (see harvest section below for more).
A slow-maturing perennial found exclusively in woodland habitats ranging from Minnesota to Maine and into Southern Appalachia (UPS, 2020).
Bright green sheathing leaves emerge in early spring from dormant bulbs, before dying back in mid-May.
Flower stalks emerge in late may and go to seed on leafless stalks by June.
Plants only begin to mature into reproductive age after seven years of growth. Self-seeding is dependent upon ideal spring conditions, but asexual reproduction occurs via budding of the bulbs.
Plants generally grow in dense colonies, and are often identified by the classic garlic/allium scent.
Growing & Harvesting
Ramps prefer shady woodlands with well-drained soils rich in organic matter. They generally persist in cooler, northern-facing slopes.
Typically ramps will grow best in soils with high ratios of calcium and magnesium, with a pH of 5.5 (Greenfield & Davis, 2002).
30% shade is considered most ideal, and colonies of ramps will mature well in woodland populations containing beech, birch, sugar maples, hickory, poplar, and oak (Edgar et al, 2012).
If growing from seed, transplanting into carefully selected sites with the aforementioned conditions are ideal. Some suggest that A. tricoccum is the most suitable species for transplanting. Seeds from a wonder local purveyor, Milkweed Medicinals, can be found here.
Plants are ready for harvest in late April to early May when the leaves are a vibrant green and abundant. Again, over-harvesting of wild leeks, along with logging of its habitat, has led to immense species loss. This is why there is preference to harvest from commercially or home grown patches. However, if one must wildcraft, there is important protocol that should be followed to ensure this plant flourishes into the future. When wildcrafting, it is recommended to observe a stand of plants, wild leeks or otherwise, for at least several seasons before actually harvesting. This is to gain familiarity with that specific population and observe its health and vitality for a period of time. If it wanes from year to year, it may be indicative of a stress plant population or harvesting by other humans, which would discourage us from adding more pressure. If you do find a population that you know to be very healthy and spreading from year to year, it is recommended to never take more than 10% (at most) of what is growing. Because of wild leeks' tendency to reproduce via bulb budding, we highly recommend that the whole plant never be harvested. Rather, taking 1 above ground leaf from every 10-15 plants is much more advisable. Remember, it can take up to 7 years before a wild leek is capable of reproducing via seed, so it is very crucial to leave as much of the plant as possible and take only what you need. For us, we generally only ever harvest enough for one meal each year, whether it be a few leaves for a sautéed garnish or a small bunch of leaves for a ramp pesto. And don't forget to always ask the plants for permission to harvest and give them gratitude for their blessings!
Wild leeks are generally only available in fresh form in very limited quantities in commerce. Some regional food coops and farm stands may offer ramps during a few week period in the spring, and they are increasingly popular in restaurants. It is good practice to ask purveyors how and where they source their wild leeks - sometimes it lends itself to an opportunity to share information on the plant's threatened nature!
Taste & Energetics
Energetics: Hot-warm, dry (per our experiences)
Potential Herbal Actions:
Wild leeks have not been readily studied for traditional herbal actions, although we may infer some things based on their relationship to other alliums. We may think of them as antimicrobial, aromatic stomachics, hypolipidemic, hypocholesterolemic, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory.
Traditional Uses (Edgar et al, 2012; Greenfield & Davis, 2002):
Lowering to cholesterol and blood lipids
Preventative for colds and flu
Bulbs used in some indigenous tribes to purge "bad blood"
Flavonol glycosides, namely quercetin and kaempferol (Dabeek et al, 2019).
Isothiocyanates - well dispersed in allium and brassica species
Generally tolerated well as food
Can be used as an analog to garlic in many recipes, try sauteeing, grilling, pickling/fermenting or making sauces.
Wild Leek + Kale Pesto with Hemp Seed Oil
Approx 1.5 cup roughly chopped wild leek leaves, loosely packed
Approx 1 cup raw kale, or other wild greens (dandelion, nettles, chickweed etc), roughly chopped
1/2 cup (heaping) of toasted walnuts or pine nuts
3/4 cup cold-pressed hemp seed oil or olive oil (we mix both!)
1/2 cup (heaping) shredded Parmesan cheese
1.5 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon dried sage
Celtic sea salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients into blender or food processor and mix well. Note: if using hemp seed oil, make sure not to let the machine heat the mixture as it will quickly denature the oil and reduce its nutritional value.
Once blended to desired consistency remove from blender/processor and enjoy on your favorite dish! Wonderful on pasta with roasted beets, as a dipping sauce, or slathered over a burger (beef or veggie, of course!).
*Note: The information shared here is meant for educational purposes only. It is not meant to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease. Please consult your physician or a trained herbalist before working with herbs, especially if you currently take medications. If you would like to share this information in your own publications, please credit our work accordingly.
Dabeek, W.M.; Kovinich, N.; Walsh, C.; Ventura Marra, M. Characterization and Quantification of Major Flavonol Glycosides in Ramps (Allium tricoccum). Molecules 2019 (24) 3281. Retrieved: https://www.mdpi.com/1420-3049/24/18/3281/htm.
Davis, J.M. and J. Greenfield. 2002. Cultivating ramps: Wild leeks of Appalachia. p. 449-452. In: J. Janick and A. Whipkey (eds.), Trends in new crops and new uses. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA. Retrieved: http://www.ruralaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Ramps.pdf.
Edgar, B., Brubaker, H., & Tuminelli, K. (2012). Plugging the Leak on Wild Leeks: The Threat of Over-harvesting Wild Leek Populations in Northern New York. NY: St. Lawrence University. Retrieved: http://www.stlawu.edu/sites/default/files/resource/wild_leek_conservation.pdf.
United Plant Savers (2020). Ramps: Allium tricoccum. Retrieved: https://unitedplantsavers.org/ramps-allium-tricoccum/.