The ramp (Allium tricoccum) has been favored for generations for its tasty garlic and onion flavor and as a spring tonic to cleanse the blood. Each year the emergence of the ramp signals harvesters to flock to the woods to gather the bulbs for their own table or to sell into the growing ramp retail market. Ramps have traditionally been sold at roadside stands, from the bed of pick-up trucks, at rural diners, and at ramp festivals. With new interest in wild foods and specialty produce the ramp has now found its way into urban farmers’ markets and five-star restaurants in places like New York City, Chicago, Seattle, and Washington DC to name a few.
There is no official record keeping or data collection to determine how many ramp plants are harvested each year, but estimates suggest it would take at least 2 million plants annually to meet current market demand, and that figure could be very low. There are very few established ramp growers in the U.S., and nearly all of the current demand is being supplied from wild populations.
Ramps can form extensive patches in the wild, some covering 15-25 acres or more. A large and maybe indefinite amount of ramps could be harvested from these patches with sustainable management practices, but there are no guarantees that these practices are being used. Certainly some harvesters are using sustainable collection practices, but there are many who are not. Last year, here in Athens County, Ohio I was doing some spring hiking and photographing wildflowers on the Wayne National Forest when I came across blatant evidence of ramp poaching. Aside from a lack of tire tracks, it looked like these harvesters could have come in with a tractor bucket and scooped up large chunks of the patch.
There were large patches of bare soil without a single plant left for reproduction, roots from surrounding plants were left exposed, and seedlings and smaller plants were trampled, tossed aside, and left to rot. Researchers have modeled population disturbance and recovery times after harvest events of different intensities. Despite varying results from recovery models, it is clear that excessive and unsustainable harvesting from a population will take many years to heal. If an entire population is harvested, it could take 150 years for it to fully recover. Ramps only become reproductive and produce seeds after 7 years of growth, and seed mortality is also very high. One West Virginia grower suggests that unplanted seeds may only have a 5% survival rate. It’s likely that most of the growth in ramp populations comes from bulb division, with one plant sprouting a second bud on the bulb. This is why many ramps are found growing in clumps.
The best way to reverse these trends and take pressure off wild populations is to educate harvesters about sustainable collection practices and wild stewardship and promote cultivation on private forestlands. Ramp patches can be started from seed or by purchasing bulbs for transplanting. Once the bulbs begin to flower, seeds can be collected and planted, and the patch can be expanded at no cost. Limiting harvests to no more than 10% of the patch and seed planting are also important for both wild and cultivated patches. By simply planting the seeds below the leaf litter in good habitat the chance of germination and survival can increase by as much as 90%. By doing these few simple things we can accomplish a lot to ensure that the ramp will continue to thrive in our woodlands, and there will be plenty of ramps to eat for all.
- Plant on north or east facing slopes.
- Rake back the leaf litter, scuff the soil with a rake, and broadcast 12- 15 seeds/sq. ft.
- Recover with the leaf litter
- Plant bulbs by making a hole 3 in. deep with a mattock or trowel.
- Place the bulb in the hole so the tip is just above the surface of the soil, and firm up the loosened dirt and recover with leaves.
- Space bulbs from 3 inches up to 3 feet apart.
Tanner R. Filyaw, NTFP Programs
Rural Action Forestry, www.ruralaction.org/forestry
Time to Ramp Up Conservation Efforts
Last spring trespassers dug trash bags, laundry baskets and buckets full of ramps (Allium tricoccum) from the woodland ravine of Goldenseal Sanctuary neighbor, Diane DonCarlos.1 Fortunately police responded to a call from Diane, and they were able to track down the ramp thieves. When the police returned some of the stolen ramps, Diane was able to replant them back in the holler further from the road in hopes they would be protected next spring. Diane’s rich ramp holler as been targeted each spring, and she says over two acres of her land have been completely poached of all ramps. Though we know there are many ethical harvesters, there is also sadly an epidemic of drug use and poverty that has plagued rural Appalachia, and ramps (like ginseng) provide a means to an end. Sadly this was the case in Diana’s story, and the police were able to track the poachers because they were already multiple offenders. This is just one story of many coming from the craze for ramps in rural Appalachia. At this time there is no way of knowing where ramps are being harvested, and no efforts are in place to track ramp populations, except for a few unique studies looking at regional populations.
Ramp festivals are a rich cultural and economic component of rural areas, as well as a wonderful celebration of a spring medicinal plant, as are other wild greens that are important for cleansing the system after a long winter’s diet of what was traditionally meat and stored foods. The recent increased interest in wild foods has created an unsustainable demand on a vulnerable native medicinal species that is being predominately harvested from the wild. Lawrence Davis-Hollander, ethnobotanist wrote back in 2011 that at least two million plants of wild ramps were harvested that year based on average harvests of various ramp festivals and online sales through wholesalers.2
Many botanists and ecologists from various conservation organizations and state and federal agencies were reporting on the declining population of ramps.3 These concerns prompted the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation back in 2012 to work on a plan that would monitor wild ramp populations, develop guidelines for plant conservation practices and further fund initiatives that would find solutions to ramp conservation to ensure protection from over-harvesting and also work to develop a supply for restaurants and festivals.4
The following recommendations were made after the completed study: that the harvesting of wild ramps should be limited through a harvesting permit program, cultivation should be encouraged, and educational programs must be put in place to make people aware of the issues created by overharvesting and to expose them to the basics of plant conservation.5 Thus, it makes sense that the Ramp Fest of the Hudson has pioneered a wonderful solution – it is the first leaf-only festival, meaning that only the ramp leaves, not the bulbs are sold and cooked at the festival. This ensures the most sustainable harvesting method possible. If other ramp festivals were to also take notice of the success of the Hudson Ramp fest, this effort could have a huge impact on ramp conservation while still supporting rural economic benefits.
United Plant Savers supports three key components to protect ramps and ensure future viability of populations that the Hudson Ramp Festival has pioneered.6
Sustainable Harvesting Practices:
- ONE LEAF PER PLANT: Harvest only the leaves, and leave some ramps fully intact. Rather than cutting off all the leaves from a bulb, take only one leaf per plant. This will leave a leaf for photosynthesis, allowing the plant to continue to grow and reproduce (without any leaves, the plant could go into dormancy). Digging up whole ramps not only reduces ramp population and prevents reproduction, but a disturbance to the soil disrupts its ecology and lets invasive plants become established.
- LEAVES ONLY PLEASE: Maintaining our ramp supply will require a transition to a “leaves-only” approach. Ask your ramp vendor to consider changing their practices to those described above so that ramps will grow for years to come. Also, consider that we need to compensate responsible harvesters fairly for maintaining the growth of ramps in their region by paying a price for the leaves as if the root is still attached.
- GROW THEM: We can continue to enjoy ramps while allowing them to proliferate in the wild. Ramps can be cultivated, either by growing plants from seed or by transplanting bulbs.
It is important to highlight that the Cherokee have used the method of only harvesting the leaves for centuries and that it has been documented that Europeans also use this method of only harvesting the leaves for the Allium ursinum native to Europe and Asia.7 Native Americans used the leaves to treat colds and only used the bulbs as a purge, and a tonic was used to treat intestinal worms.8
In New York Allium tricoccum var. burdickii is listed as endangered, and harvesting is forbidden. The status of ramps in Tennessee is that they are of special concern and considered commercially exploited. In Maine and Rhode Island they are also given the status of special concern. 9 Ramps are protected in Quebec and are legally protected in Gatineau Park since 1980;10 they even have a toll-free hotline for people to report theft of ramps. In spring of 2002, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park banned the collection of ramps after a 5-year study indicated a decline in the park’s ramp populations.11 The study provided insight that once a patch was extensively harvested it could take up to 20 plus years to recover.12 The observations from the study documented that ramp harvesters collect their quotas from one patch, leaving a few individuals to provide seed to regenerate the patch.
Last year United Plant Savers used its “At-Risk” Tool to evaluate the conservation concern in regards to ramps. Ramps scored a high 50 (see our master score sheet in the article on the “At-Risk” Tool). Because ramps are a long-lived perennial that is slow to reproduce from seed, taking more than seven years to reach maturity, their life history makes them extremely vulnerable. The effect of harvest is also high because when harvesting the bulbs, you are taking the entire plant out of its population and creating fertile ground for invasive species. The abundance of ramp populations is unknown in most areas, but its range is wide, spanning throughout Appalachia, and therefore they received a moderate score on our Tool.
Although in the wild they are mostly found in damp wooded hollers among other sensitive at-risk plants, they do have the ability to grow in a variety of soil conditions, therefore the habitat and abundance scores were relatively low. The final category that looks at demand in the marketplace was high since we can track the increase in demand from the festivals, farmers markets, grocery stores, and restaurants. In June 2015, United Plant Savers Board of Directors voted to place ramps on our “To-Watch” List, and we will continue to gather additional data and then re-evaluate for potential listing on our “At-Risk” List.
Most evident in using our assessment tool is that we can greatly reduce the vulnerability of ramps being overharvested if we use the leaves instead of harvesting the entire plant. We cannot change the life history of ramps, but we can change the way we harvest them, and we can support those land owners who would like to grow ramps in their woods. Forest farming ramps to sell seeds, harvesting the greens, and selling the bulbs in small quantities for specialty foods and for replanting stock could make a huge difference in ensuring a rich cultural and ecological heritage is preserved for future generations.
1. Report submitted to Police by Diane DonCarlos Spring 2014, even though the ramps were returned the Police did not press charges.
2. Davis-Hollander, L. 2011. Ramps (Wild Leeks): When is Local not Kosher?, 2011 www.grit.com/food/ramps-wild-leeks.aspx#axzz2yCpIbusb
3. Davis-Hollander, L. 2011. Ramps (Wild Leeks): When is Local not Kosher?, 2011 www.grit.com/food/ramps-wild-leeks.aspx#axzz2yCpIbusb
4. DEC 2012. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Web. 8 May 2012.
5. Edgar, B. Brubaker, H. Tuminelli, K. 2013 “Pluggin the Leak on Wild Leeks, Threats of overharvesting wild leek populations in Northern New York”. www.stlawu.edu/sites/default/files/resource/wild_leek_conservation.pdf
6. Hudson Ramp Fest- www.rampfesthudson.com
7. Moyer, Ben. 2008. Ramps bring signs of spring throughout Appalachia; wild leek festivals signal the start of the season. Pittsburgh Post – Gazette B1.
8. Moerman, Daniel.1998 Native American Ethnobotany. Portland, OR, Timber.
9. Plant Profile USDA: http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=altr3
10. Nault, A. and Gagnon, D. 1993. Ramet demography of Allium tricoccum, a spring ephemeral, perennial forest herb. Journal of Ecology. 81:101-119. Chapman, Sasha. 2005. Quantum Leeks. Toronto Life 39(4):85-86.
11. Hoyle, Z. 2004. Are ramp festivals sustainable? United States Department of Agriculture – Forest Service. Web 4 Apr. 2012. www.srs.fs.usda.gov/news/65
12. Blanchett, S. 2002. Park Service declines to revisit ban on harvesting ramps. [Internet]. 2002 May 3 [cited 2012 April 7]. The Newport Plain Talk. Available from http://newportplaintalk.com/story/4731.