Full-Flavored & Funky

In spring, ramps reach the peak of pungent perfection.

Illustration by Robert Meganck

They emerge early in the spring, spreading in big patches like verdant green pools against the dull carpet of winter’s leaf litter. Unprepossessing in appearance, they sprout two or three long, flat, tapered leaves attached to a purplish stem growing from a scallion-like bulb. But looks aren’t what you’re looking for when you seek these plants. It’s the olfactory punch they pack that make ramps a kind of Appalachian truffle: memorably stinky and almost cultishly coveted.

Sometimes also called wild leeks, ramps are part of the allium, or onion, branch of the lily family, and in Virginia are found growing in the damp, shaded, organically rich soil of the forest understory in the state’s Appalachian corridor. Their season is brief—a few short weeks before the tree canopy overhead begins to leaf out. But all parts of the plant are edible, and, as the first fresh burst of spring flavor to relieve the winter monotony of preserved foods and root vegetables, they have long been wild-gathered and feasted upon in this region.

What do ramps taste like? They are variously described as spicy and funky; like green garlic and green onions, or a cross between scallions and garlic, but sweet like shallots. One Southern chef helpfully described them to Epicurious as “a tone flavor.” The word used most often, however, is “pungent.”

Ramps are plants that announce themselves pronouncedly. 

Ramps have deep roots in Appalachian food culture, traditionally cooked with bacon fat and sometimes, eggs, and served alongside beans, bacon, potatoes and cornbread. Along with other early-season greens like nettles and dandelions, they have long been referred to as a “spring tonic,” a metaphorical and medicinal cure for winter and its afflictions. As a member of the Cosby, Tennessee, Ruritan Club explains gleefully on the documentary King of Stink: Appalachian Ramp Festivals, “When you eat ramps, you smell so bad that nobody can get close enough to you to give you a cold or the flu!” 

As a wild-foraged, regional, and evanescently seasonal plant with an edgy “I dare you to like me” funkiness, however, ramps were perhaps inevitably destined to become a darling of the foodie set. Every spring, they burst onto the menus of trendy “locavore” eateries, crop up for as much as $20 per pound or more in Northeast corridor farmers’ markets, and proliferate across a multi-ethnic panorama of recipes: ramps risotto, ramps pesto, ramps dumplings, ramps kimchee, ramps pizza, ramps salsa, ramps aioli, ramps cocktails—and of course, eventually, someone had to go there and make ramps ice cream. 

It is possible, though, to love too much; there is concern that overharvesting threatens the sustainability of these plants. Ramps are found in forests from Georgia north into Canada, but because it’s not easy to assess the status of a plant that grows mostly off the beaten track and only for a short season, it isn’t actually clear whether ramps are in decline across this region. 

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park banned ramps foraging more than a decade ago, after a study concluded that sustainable harvesting required taking no more than 10 percent of a patch of ramps once every 10 years.

Ramps don’t replace themselves quickly, as the Smoky Mountains research found. They can be grown from seeds, but it can take from 5-7 years for a plant to mature to harvest. Ramps also spread through underground rhizomes: Sustainable harvesting practice includes taking only about a third of a clump of ramps, preserving the entire clump’s rhizome and roots, and returning the remaining two-thirds (along with the rhizome and roots) to the ground to continue growing. 

As a means of both economic development and conservation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agroforestry Center has promoted forest cultivation of ramps by landowners whose property includes the ideal wooded setting for the plant. But even the center’s growing guide acknowledges that the long maturation period and sustainable-harvest constraints mean that ramps don’t make for a get-rich-quick scheme, noting that “generating income requires patience.” 

If you’re curious to try ramps the traditional way, the best bet for the full-flavor experience is to head to a regional ramps festival. In Whitetop, the event is sponsored by and benefits the Mt. Rogers Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad. It features Old Time music and dancing, arts and crafts, a ramps-eating contest, barbecue chicken dinner, and of course plenty of ramps for your enjoyment. This year, the festival will be held May 21. When you get to Whitetop, head to the fire hall. 

Or just follow your nose.


This article originally appeared in our April 2017 issue.

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