Spring has Sprung and So Have the Ramps
It's that refreshing time of year (finally!) when ramps make a brief-yet-cherished appearance on restaurant menus and farmers' market tables. But before those delightful heralds of spring make their way to your plates, someone like me has to dig them up.
On our farm, we grow gourmet salad greens and herbs that also end up as restaurant fare, but in early spring we turn to our forest farm for sustenance. As the gray landscape begins to gain color in the tips of the branches, the days suddenly feel gentler. We know that soon, any day now, the yellow coltsfoot will blossom on the roadsides and it will be time to check our favorite woodland spots for signs of ramps.
Anticipation in Green
From one week to the next, the hill will pop with life as the green shoots of the ramps appear -- almost as if from nowhere. Their sturdy confidence gives us a spring in our step, even as we trudge through the mud for our prized alliums. The ramps emergence reminds us that soon we'll be shedding our boots and the burden of layers and more layers of clothes.
As it gets close to ramp season, we begin to crave the first fresh greens to appear after winter. We dust off our recipes for ramp omelets, pesto and pickled ramps and enjoy trying recipes like these.
Ramps enjoy loamy soil and the short season of dappled light created by the warming sun through the trees barely in bud. By the time the trees have begun to leaf out in earnest, ramp harvest is over. The leaves (the yummiest part) die early, leaving only the flower and bulb to concentrate on multiplying -- more for your plate next season.
Unfortunately, harvesting puts the ramp's ability to multiply in jeopardy. In recent years, the enthusiasm for these wild plants has caused many patches of ramps to be completely decimated by over-zealous purveyors.
You Can Help
Ramps multiply in two ways. Plants can grow from seeds produced by the flower, but the seeds are finicky and need a very particular set of events to germinate. It can take as much as six or seven years for a new plant just to get started to grow from a seed. However, ramps do multiply quickly through bulb division. Like their cousins, onion and garlic, ramps are vigorous multipliers underground. That is why it is extremely important to harvest ramps in a sustainable and respectful fashion and leave many bulbs in place during digging.
As harvesters, we make sure to do it gently and responsibly. And we also propagate new patches each week so our ramp population has grown rather than decreased over the years.
If you are buying ramps or eating them at a restaurant, please ask your supplier if they are harvested in a sustainable manner. Ramps that are not harvested in a respectful way are quickly replaced by other plants -- and may never grow in their native spots again.
Just in case you are wondering -- this is not an advertisement. It is an enjoinder. We supply a limited number of ramps to a limited number of chefs and we won't be growing our business. I just wanted to give you a personal account of how ramps grow and thrive or don't thrive. If you don't ask about your ramps' origin, you may soon find them off the menu for good.