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 D.C 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, 20, 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.
1. Plant on north or east facing slopes.
2. Rake back the leaf litter, scuff the soil with a rake, and broad cast 12- 15 seeds/sq. ft.
3. Recover with the leaf litter
4. Plant bulbs by making a hole 3 in. deep with a mattock or trowel.
5. 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.
6. Space bulbs from 3 inches up to 3 feet apart.
Tanner Filyaw is the Forest Botanicals Specialist and Educator for Rural Action. From 2005 to 2008 Mr. Filyaw worked as an Americorps VISTA with the Rural Action Sustainable Forestry program conducting landowner education and outreach around sustainable forestry, land stewardship, and Non-Timber Forest Products. Since accepting a staff position with Rural Action in March 2008, Tanner has continued to act in this capacity, and has conducted many workshops, presentations, and other educational programs for Ohio landowners to help develop sustainable and income strategies from forested lands. He graduated from Ohio University in 2005 with a B.S. in Environmental Geography, with a minor specializing in Environmental and Plant Biology.