Springtime in Appalachia means ramp festival season. But even as ramp festivals attract record numbers of people seeking a fleeting taste of the seasonal garlic-scented greens, scientists warn that overharvesting is forcing wild populations into decline.
In the town of Richwood, West Va., the self-proclaimed "Ramp Capital of the World," ramp diggers recently gathered bagfuls of the wild greens from the forest floor, according to Nancy Leffingwell of the Richwood Chamber of Commerce. They loaded them into trucks for the largest and longest-running annual ramp festival in the country.
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.
Chefs and home cooks, especially urbanites who've just discovered ramps, go gaga over them. Their pungent smell and flavor, a cross between garlic and onion, has earned them the nickname "little stinkers." When they're cooked in mass quantities in Richwood, the whole town smells like them, Leffingwell says.
She reports that two weeks in advance of the festival, 20 volunteers a day are cleaning, slicing and bagging ramps. For the "Feast of the Ramson," they're served with beans, bacon, ham, potato wedges, cornbread, and ramps fried in bacon fat. Other Richwooders prepare ramp salsa, ramp jelly, and pickled ramps to sell.
The festival in Richwood is just one of many ramp festivals held in small towns March through May. The number of festival attendees in Richwood has continued to grow every year, with a noticeable spike in the past two years alone. For its 75th anniversary this year, the Richwood festival served over 1,000 ramp suppers, a record for the town, Leffingwell says.
But 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 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."
At farmers markets in New York City, ramps are currently selling for up to $6 a bunch and are gone by 10:30 a.m., according to Michael Hurwitz, director of the Greenmarket Program. Over 90 percent of ramps sold at Greenmarket are harvested from New York state, with the remainder originating from New Jersey or farther north, he adds.
Jim Chamberlain, a scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service's Southern Research Station in Blacksburg, Va., is concerned when he hears that some ramp vendors in New York are harvesting 20,000 pounds of ramps a year. "I cannot believe any claim that the populations are not declining," says Chamberlain.
As Nancy Shute reported for The Salt in 2011, ramp farming is being promoting as a way to feed new ramp enthusiasts without threatening native plant populations. Chamberlain is starting a new study this year to see if the traditional knowledge about replanting rhizomes really works.
No matter what, it will take time: Ramps can take up to 18 months to germinate from seed, and five to seven years to mature enough enough to harvest the root.