Greetings and welcome to Episode #33, Appalachian Spring: Romping Through the Ramps. Spring is finally on its way!
Let’s face it… during the winter, you can definitely get some serious cabin fever. We all love to be outside and doing active, fun things like skiing, snowboarding, skating, sledding, even ice fishing etc., but when the winter season is long in the tooth, the snow is sporadic, and the slopes are “iffy” at best, we can’t help but dream of the first whiffs of Spring: we dream of emerging wildflowers and birds’ songs, and an end to the confines of the cold, no matter how warm and cozy we might be sitting by the fire or watching the birds at the backyard feeder.
What are the signs of Spring in Western Maryland? Well, you can get snow here, well into May and even June, so that is a “thing,” but in between those unpredictable cold snaps, you can hear the birds starting to pipe up, you can feel that the sun is just a little warmer, you can feel the moisture in the ground and hear the extra volume of the gurgling streams and brooks, hear the piping of the peepers and the wood frogs, and you see a few snow drops, blue bells, or other wildflowers daring to peek through.
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In fact, wildflowers to me truly signal that the cold blanket of winter is slowly melting away and that Spring is breathing life back into the Appalachian’s majestic eastern forests. Their beauty is rare and delicate and unique and worth an outing into the still-chilly Spring air, just to catch a glimpse.
Most of all, you know, when the wildflowers dare to emerge, it’s time for foraging for spring mushrooms, like morels, and for ramps. Yes indeedy, Spring in Appalachia is a very special time of year.
Now before we get too much further into the signs of spring, let me just say a little something about the music you’ve been hearing here on this episode. It’s called, fittingly, Appalachian Spring. It was composed by the famous Aaron Copeland, and has a long and storied history, having been created for the modern dancer Martha Graham, as the music score to a ballet. But for many, myself included, it sounds just like the harbingers of spring we are talking about and it’s delicate and organic harmonies evoke the ambiance of Spring and are to be savored just like the first few breaths of warm, spring air..
Ok, I digress: so, back to the signs of Spring in the mountains.
Wildflowers and Ramps are the first green thing of spring in Appalachia, and while most wildflowers smell sweet and flowery, ramps are another story altogether. What’s a ramp, you ask? Ramps are basically wild leeks, or some would say wild garlic, (in latin, that’s Allium tricoccum) and they occur at higher elevations in Eastern North America from Georgia to Canada. They’re easily recognized by their 1 or 2 broad leaves measuring 1 to 2 1/2 inches wide and 4 to 12 inches long and their pungent garlic smell. And of course we have great photos in the show notes at www.wilful.wordpress.com. Ramps, or wild leeks, are a member of the lily family and resemble scallions with their wide leaves and small, white bulbs tinged a rusty red. The entire plant is edible and when harvested, it’s uprooted from the ground, bulb and all.
Interestingly, mountain folks and early settlers have for many decades looked forward to the return of the ramp after a winter of eating mostly dried foods, often believing the ramp to possess the revitalizing power of a spring tonic (not unreasonable: they are high in vitamins A & C.) Ramps, ramsons or wild leeks, as they might variably be called, are one of the earliest wild edibles to emerge, and, for some, they’re the holy grail of wild edibles. Those early settlers relied on their restorative qualities after long, hungry winters. In fact, The high vitamin C in ramps has saved many a mountaineer or pioneer back in the day from scurvy and other nutritional maladies. Native Americans from the Atlantic to the Mississippi knew and loved ramps, as they were a sparkling and welcome addition to the bland winter diet of roots and grains. They also often used them in poultices to remedy bee stings and coughs and colds.
Fast forward to today ,when modern foragers and, especially urbanites, dream all year long about that uniquely pungent garlicky, onion flavor… And people go just plain gaga over them. Some folks find ramps so delicious that civilized people have fought over the last few bunches at the farmers’ markets. They are so popular that they’ve monopolized the spring menus of top New York City chefs and whole cookooks are devoted to them.
So coveted that they’ve inspired people to tattoo them onto their bodies. In sum, people who like ramps don’t just like them, they’re obsessed with them. Their pungent smell and flavor, a cross between garlic and onion, has earned them the nickname “little stinkers.”
In Appalachia’s coal towns, where jobs are often hard to find, there are still usually ramps to be found. Like in Richwood, VA, home of the first ever Ramp Festival, Richwood once thrived on lumber and coal. As those industries fell on hard times, so did the town. Every spring, though, this struggling Appalachian community celebrates its abundance of wild ramps with an event that locals call the Feast of the Ramson.
Ramp feasting as an event began about 1921 when some Richwood, WV men met for a cookout during ramp season. Eventually their gathering moved indoors and came under the jurisdiction of the Chamber of Commerce. The success of the Richwood event inspired other communities to start their own dinners. The town went on to become home to the NRA—the National Ramp Association.As hundreds of people wait in line for their meal, local songwriter John Wyatt plays his Richwood Ramp Song, including this verse:
“If you’ve never had the chance
to partake of tasty ramps,
come on up to Richwood in the Spring.
Where there’s ramps to say the least
and our annual ramson feast
and a great variety of other things.”
Here’s an excerpt from the Inside Appalachia podcast on ramps, featuring the song and a touch of the history of the mighty ramp.There’s a link (and an audio player in the Resources section) in our show notes to the whole episode, which is well worth a listen, and I do recommend it.
But it’s not all sunshine and roses with the ramps. The demand on ramps is exacting a heavy toll on wild plant populations, especially at the extreme ends of the growing range, scientists say. Until recently, recreational ramp harvests were permitted in most national parks — ramps are one of the only plants with this kind of special treatment because of its deep cultural roots among the communities who harvest it. At the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, the Park Service thought the practice would die out on its own over time. They were wrong.
Ramp harvesting in the park was banned in 2002. At the other end of the ramp’s territory in Quebec, sales have been banned since 1995 after a study highlighted the plant’s vulnerability.
The problem is often exacerbated by the way ramps are harvested. Virtually all of ramp reproduction is not from seeds but from rhizomes, a web of underground stems that connect multiple ramp shoots together, which are uprooted along with the bulbs and leaves. When harvesters pull up the plants, they are also diminishing their potential to reproduce, according to Louis Gross, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and mathematics at the University of Tennessee. On average, a 10 percent harvest of ramps will take 10 years to grow back, but Gross cautions that that number can be deceiving. “It could easily be 60 to 80 years recovery, even if you harvest once at 10 percent,” he tells The Salt. “And most of these populations aren’t harvested once. They’re harvested pretty regularly.” And believe it or not, Huffington Post ran an article on ramps not long ago, and mentioned five things to remember about harvesting them, particularly if you’re foraging as a group:
1. Everyone in, everyone out. This means everyone who helps in the gathering gets a fair share at the end of the day.
2. Bring an ace. At least one person in your group has to know exactly what you are looking for. Essentially, don’t eat things you don’t know.
3. Keep secrets. If someone takes you to a special forage spot (aka, a honey hole) you never go there without the person who showed you the spot and you never tell other people how to get there. This is a longstanding bit of forager etiquette.
4. Always have permission. This is the land of the free and home of the brave, but not everyone likes to share his or her land or access to its bounty. So ask the landowner—you don’t want to get shot or go to jail.
5. Take only what you need. Foraging should be a sustainable act, so don’t pick all of everything you find. Leave some for the land, for the animals, for next year’s crop. Unless it’s a non-native invasive you’re foraging, in which case, knock yourself out.
If foraging isn’t your thing, remember you can also grow your own ramps, although it isn’t easy. Ramps grown from seed can germinate in 6 to 18 months (6 if the fall is warm and 18 if not). So this does take some patience and planning.
HOW TO USE RAMPS?
Ramp bulbs and leaves can be diced and used just as you would use onions, green onions, leeks, chives and garlic, but they are much more potent. The “little stinkers” are typically served with ham, bacon, fried potatoes, brown beans, cornbread, and a dessert. If you’re a serious aficionado of allium tricoccum, you know it’s an acquired taste: take garlic and multiply that intensity by about ten. The mere scent of those who have recently eaten a mess of ramps has been known to clear a room.
They pair well with the following:
- chanterelles and other wild mushrooms
- stir fried and raw greens
In the show notes, we even have a recipe for Pickled Ramps. Ummmmmm.
Momofuku’s Pickled Wild Leek/Ramp Bulbs Recipe
1 pound ramps bulbs (or whole ramps), trimmed and washed
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup rice wine vinegar
1 cup water
1 tablespoon kosher salt (or 1/2 tablespoon table salt)
1 tablespoon Japanese seven spice (Shichimi Togarashi)
1 1/2 teaspoons Korean crushed red pepper (kochukaru) or other mild crushed chili pepper
- Bring a saucepan of water to boil. Briefly blanch the ramp bulbs in salted water. If using entire young ramp (small bulb + leaves) no need to blanch. Drain and set aside.
- Combine all ingredient except the ramp bulbs in the saucepan over medium high heat. Bring to a boil, whisking until the sugar has dissolved. Turn off the heat and add the ramp bulbs to the brine mixture in the pan. Let cool to room temperature and then transfer to a smaller nonreactive container, cover tightly, and place in the refrigerator overnight. You could also can the pickled ramp bulbs.
Well, I think that I’ve given you all the information you need now to venture forth into the fresh spring air and find yourself some “little stinkers.” Harvest them responsibly, and do enjoy them with your friends and loved ones, because this is one delicacy you don’t want to savor alone, for a variety of reasons.
And while you’re foraging, remember to Stay Wild, my Friends.
Footnote: Appalachian Spring is a composition by Aaron Copland that premiered in 1944 and has achieved widespread and enduring popularity as an orchestral suite. The ballet, scored for a thirteen-member chamber orchestra, was created upon commission of choreographer and dancer Martha Graham with funds from the Coolidge Foundation. It premiered on Monday, October 30, 1944 at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., with Martha Graham dancing the lead role. The set was designed by the American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Copland was awarded the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his achievement. “The first day we heard this music, it was like the sun spread over the floor. Every rehearsal was like that. The music is so clear and so beautiful and so rhythmically alive.”
What’s on Tap for Wildfulness?
Moonshine/Distilling, including the famour Melky Miller, The legacy of Coal in Western MD, and the Legendary B&O Railroad and that gem of a Victorian railroad station, our very own Oakland B&O station.
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Useful Links and Resources:
The Full INSIDE APPALACHIA episode on ramps: