Edible Plants of the Northeast: What are ramps?

By Arthur Haines. Copyright © 2022 Arthur Haines.

Ramps or wild leek are one of my favorite, but relatively rare spring edibles in the northeast. It’s leaves taste to me like a combination of sweet garlic, and soft broccoli. You can watch a recent video of a protect wild leek patch here.

When I eat of it’s leaves, I consider myself lucky! I’ve only recently come to understand that the leek is a highly sought after, wild vegetable – so much so in fact, that the demand for it has caused the plant to become of special concern in Maine, endangered in New Hampshire, and rare in Rhode Island!

Do you remember how I wrote about what makes a species a species? Below is a way that scientists categorize the conservation status of species.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservation_status

Facts

According to GoBotany “Wild leek is found in rich, moist forests and high terrace floodplains throughout New England. There are two varieties in our area: the first (var. tricoccum) is common and found in all New England states, while the other (var. burdickii) is rather rare and found only in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Wild leek is one of the most over-harvested wild foods, leading to declines in some areas as several studies have shown. A recent study concluded that a 10% harvest once every ten years is the maximum sustainable harvest. If bulbs are to be harvested, leave behind the base of the bulb (with the attached roots), collect only after the seeds have ripened, and use them to reseed the soil disturbed during harvesting.”

Habitat

I was first introduced to this plant by Arthur Haines, who is a great botanist, primitive skills practitioner, and mentor. I was attending one of his Spring Foraging events in Western Maine. We had just crossed the Androscoggin River with a canoe. We were heading to to an island that was full of ramps, fiddleheads, and many more excellent wild greens.

The island was a perfect spot for wild leeks to grow. Arthur Haines seemed to believe that the indigenous peoples of the area had been tending this patch for hundreds of years. Arthur had never seen a patch bigger than this patch on the island before, and this was saying something because he’s a professional botanist.

Characteristics

This is how GoBotany describes the wild leek.

Leaf arrangement: basal: the leaves are growing only at the base of the plant

Leaf blade shape: the leaf blade is elliptic (widest near the middle and tapering at both ends); the leaf blade is lanceolate (lance-shaped; widest below the middle and tapering at both ends)

Leaf blade length: 150–400 mm

Flower petal color: white, yellow

Flower petal length: 4–7 mm

Petal fusion: the perianth parts are separate

Inflorescence (flower) type: the inflorescence is an umbel (with an axis so short it appears the flowers all originate from the same point)

Ovary position: the ovary is above the point of petal and/or sepal attachment

Fruit type (specific): the fruit is a capsule (splits along two or more seams, apical teeth or pores when dry, to release two or more seeds)

How to Use a Hand Lens Magnifier

Concern

Arthur spoke a lot about conserving this plant. First of all, he recommended to avoid harvesting the bulbs, because this would kill entire plant. He then talked about research that he was involved in examining the chemicals found in the plant. The results were shocking, because it showed signs of many harmful chemicals.

Do you know why?

The bulbs of the wild leeks in this study were being exposed to water (because it was a floodplain) that had been contaminated upstream by industrial chemical companies).

https://kathmandupost.com/climate-environment/2019/11/08/pollution-from-india-unlikely-to-reach-kathmandu-but-nepal-needs-to-deal-with-its-own-toxic-air

As he was telling me this I wondered about what the health consequences of eating these normally healthy plants. How would eating PCB’s for example affect my hormones?

I will say that many of the crops grown today (throughout the world) are grown on floodplains.

According to Wikipedia, a floodplain is ” an area of land adjacent to a river which stretches from the banks of its channel to the base of the enclosing valley walls, and which experiences flooding during periods of high discharge.”

This means that many of our commercial vegetables that we find in our grocery store (even if organic) could contain contaminates because of the water being used to grown them. After all industrial pollution isn’t an isolated event, and is a leading killer in many countries.

https://nwtreatytribes.org/state-watersheds-nooksack-floodplains-far-salmon-recovery-plan-goal/

Conservation

By John Lynch. Copyright © 2022 New England Wild Flower Society. 

The picture above is the ripened fruits of the wild leek. Arthur said that if you were going to harvest the entire plant, that he would plant last year’s fruit into the dug up hole to make sure that the plant would regrow. To dig up the entire plant, you could use a digging stick, like the picture below which has been used for millennia to harvest underground foods.

https://www.nps.gov/

Arthur ended the discussion with our group by saying unlike the bulbs, the leaves the research says “were free of contaminates”! I was excited because I knew was safe to eat this delicious green wild vegetable. I wiped the sweat off my face because we had just finished stuffing our pack baskets with leaves to bring home. At lunch he brought out local meats and cheeses and we certaintly enjoyed our time.

Phytochemistry

There are several studies that I will cite below that demonstrate Allium tricoccum Ait. and it’s relatives potent and medicinal phytochemistry.

1) In 2017, a study called “Allium schoenoprasum L.: a review of phytochemistry, pharmacology and future direction” examined the medicinal values of chives. In the abstract of the paper, it reads “scientific evaluation of chives validates its traditional claims and demonstrates diverse pharmacological potential including an anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antioxidant, anthelmintic and antihypertensive.”

https://www.slideserve.com/banagher/phenols

2) In 2013, a study called “Allium ursinum: botanical, phytochemical and pharmacological overview” dove deep into the phytochemicals that specifically offer many of the medicinal value. Some of the compounds found useful are the sulfur and phenolic compounds.

Ethnobotany

The North American Ethnobotanical Database say that the Ojibwe, Iroquois, Menominee, Chippewa, and Cherokee have and probably still do use Allium tricoccum Ait. as a drug, and as a food in many different forms.

Closing

All in all, wild leek offers us many teachings about conservation, medicine, and food. I hope someday soon you may all get to taste the wonderful properties of wild leek and – when you do – remember the stories behind the forest-loving plant.

If you have any more questions about this plant, please reach out. Thanks for reading! 

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