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Time for a ramps fest! A sign that spring is really here, ramps are wild edible greens (also called “wild leeks”) which are quite popular with foodies and foragers alike. See where to forage or procure ramps, what ramps taste like, and how to make a simple ramps pesto recipe.
What are Ramps?
What are ramps? As in the inclined walkway? No, no. Ramps are a cousin of the onion, leek, and garlic plant; they’ve also been called wild leeks, wild garlic, wood leeks, and ramsons.
Scientifically, ramps are known as Allium tricoccum. Their name comes from its similarity to an English plant called the “ransom” (Allium ursinus) which was called “ramson” in earlier times.
With a small, white bulb and hairy root, ramps resemble scallions and are foraged from shady, woody areas just a few weeks from late April to early June.
Both the leaves and bulb are edible, but best harvested when young and tender.
Health Benefits of Ramps
As one of the earliest spring edibles to emerge, ramps were traditionally an important “tonic” after a long winter without the vitamins, minerals, and roughage provided by greens.
Early settlers relied on their restorative qualities to “cleanse” the system after months of eating beans, rice, and oats. Ramps have a high vitamin content and blood-cleansing properties.
Native American tribes also prized ramps, including the Cherokee, the Iroquois, the Ojibwa, and Menominee. Ramps could be eaten fresh with seasonings, boiled, fried, or dried for storage.
In Appalachia, ramps are fried in butter or animal fat, as well as consumed raw in salads, or mixed with scrambled eggs or potatoes, soups, and other savory dishes.
Ramps have a long history of medicinal value, which was valued by many indigenous peoples. The Iroquois used the tonic to treat intestinal worms due to its cleansing power. The Cherokee used ramps to treat colds and earaches. The Chippewa decocted the root to induce vomiting.
Where Do Ramps Grow?
Ramps grow in shady, woody, moist areas. They’re native to mountainous forests in the eastern North America—as far north as Canada and as far south as North Carolina and as far west as Missouri.
Around mid-April to early May, take a walk through any shady hardwood forest. This is when ramps have their brief season of glory as they’ll die off once the tree canopies leaf out. Look in the shady patches in low-lying areas (not swamps). They’re not that hard to find nor I.D. if you know where to go.
A ramp has 2 to 3 beautifully green, smooth, broad leaves per stem. They do have a poisonous look-a-like: Lily of the Valley. However, ramp leaves are thin and papery while Lily of the Valley leaves are thicker and more rubbery. The real and obvious difference, however, is the smell. Ramps have a strong oniony smell. If you break off a leaf, you can not mistake that pungent onion and garlic scent.
Where Can You Buy Ramps
If you are not a forager, ramps appear for a fleeting moment at farmers’ markets, adventurous grocery stores, and high-end markets in early spring. And these stores charge quite a lot to truck limp wild ramps to their aisles!
It’s rather ironic considering the people of the Appalachian mountains and Native Americans have harvested wild ramps for free for generations. However, we live in different times and not everyone can escape to the forest!
If you are harvesting your own ramps, do so sustainably: Ramps should be cut so that the bulb remains in the ground and is left to regrow. This is how they were traditionally harvested (and still are) in order to preserve the population.
To harvest ramps, just loosen the soil with a trowel and pull back the dirt from the bulb.
Cut part way up the stem with a sharp pocket knife while the plant is still in the ground.
If you only want the leaves, then cut only one leaf from each ramp and leave the bulb with a second leaf to keep growing.
Then re-cover the roots with dirt and leave them to grow.
Please do NOT just tear the roots out of the ground. In many areas, ramps are being threatened and over-foraged for restaurants.
What Do Ramps Taste Like?
The flavor of ramps is unique and hard to describe; it’s similar taste to the spring onion, but with an aromatic pungency closer to garlic.
Use ramps in recipes as you would onions or garlic: in eggs, potatoes, vegetable stir-fries, etc. Just keep in mind that ramps are more potent!
Ramps are amazing in pasta! To make an easy spaghetti dish, just cook up the ramp bulbs (thinly sliced) in a skillet with a few teaspoons of butter and olive oil. Tear up a couple cups of ramp greens and add to the skillet. Then gently mix ramps into cooked pasta! Mix in grated Parmesan and serve.
Wild Ramp Pesto Recipe
Back when I worked at a farm on the East Coast, we would have samples of ramp pesto for customers to try. It’s incredible. As the person in charge of making said samples, I decided that I was therefore allowed to eat copious amounts of it when customers were not around! It’s divine on a sandwich, on crostini, on a potato salad, or simply on a spoon.
Pesto is also the best way to preserve the ramp leaves. The pesto can be stored in the refrigerator in the short term or frozen for use later.
1 bunch (about 6 ounces) ramps 1/2 cup walnuts (toasted in a skillet for 5 minutes until golden) 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt to taste 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (or 1/2 cup—you kind of have to eyeball it) Squirt of lemon juice 1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley (optional)
1. Wash ramps thoroughly and cut off the leaves of the ramps.
2. Chop the ramp leaves and walnuts just a bit and put them in your food processor. (Optional: add parsley.)
3. Add most of the cheese (save a sprinkle for serving) plus salt.
4. Pouring the olive oil in slowly, process contents until they combine and look, well … pesto-y.
5. Taste for seasoning and add a good squirt of lemon juice.
Wild ramp pesto!
Serve with some ramp pita, on crackers, or stir into pasta!
Wild Ramps Butter
Another easy way to preserve the ramp leaves is to make ramp butter, which can be frozen and used all year. You can use just the leaves for this recipe, or use both the leaves and the bulbs if you have bulbs.
• 1 lb unsalted butter room temperature • 6-8 ounces ramp leaves (approx. 25 large leaves) • 1 tablespoon lemon juice • 2 teaspoons lemon zest grated finely (from about 1 large lemon) • Kosher salt to taste • Fresh ground black pepper
Be sure to set out the butter in advance so it’s at room temperature.
Wash ramps thoroughly and cut off the leaves of the ramps.
Fill a large pot with boiling water and a dash of salt. Have a separate bowl of ice water ready. Put the ramps in the boiling water for only 30 seconds, then remove with tongs and plunge into the ice water. Then dry on paper towels.
Finely chop up the ramps (or, use a food processor to chop), then add to bowl with butter, lemon zest and juice. Mix until well combined. Add salt and pepper to taste.
If you’re using the butter right away, just wrap in parchment or plastic and chill (up to one week). Or you can put in an airtight container or pack into a ramekin and freeze for months.
Convinced to try ramps? If you ever see ramps in a recipe, now you know what they are! You’ll never think of inclined walkways the same way again.