In April, the sun lies over the cold forest floor, permeating the insulating duff. Ice crystals dissolve, the ground loosens, and dormant ramp bulbs sprout, pushing their leaves toward the surface. Tips emerge, tightly furled at first; they feel the air, open wide, and race toward the sun, gathering energy and nutrients through spring before the canopy closes overhead.
Through May, a mature ramp plant has two or three slender emerald green leaves, about eight inches tall and two inches wide. It is nutritious, tasty — and harvestable, if you know where to look. James O’Neill is the forager/owner at Deep Forest Wild Edibles, a certifiably safe local source for foraged foods. He says, “[Ramps are] the jewel of the allium family. Raw, cooked, pickled, fermented, they’re as diverse a culinary building block as any onion, but the flavor is garlicky, more pronounced.”
Foraged and eaten for centuries by Cherokee and Appalachians, ramps didn’t start to appear in New York restaurant dining rooms until the 1990s. Food writers swooned over dishes like Tom Colicchio’s cod with a fondue of ramps and bacon, and the culinary world’s obsession with the alliums spurred a ramp rush that headed straight for Hudson Valley woods.
O’Neill says, “If I tell someone about a specific spot, the whole ramp stand is gone. I will tell you they like loose soil with a lot of organic matter in dense forest. You’ll often find them in well-draining flood plains. Modern sustainability practice is to clip one leaf from every three plants. They are so ecologically sensitive because of the long gestation period. It takes up to five years for a ramp plant to produce seeds.”
O’Neill likes to make ramp escabeche, compound butter, pickles, and pesto to demonstrate their versatility. Food & Wine recently covered a group of Jamaican farmers in Plattsburgh who discovered that ramps were the missing link in their traditional fish tea.
Demand has driven New York ramp prices up to about $20 per pound. Deep Forest Wild Edibles offers a weekly, foraged CSA during the spring months, which may include ramps, fiddleheads, baby greens and/or edible flowers, as well as recipes and tips. (Pricing starts at $40; details are available on Facebook and Instagram as they become available.)
Surely, part of the allure is the fleeting season. In June, after a canopy has spread overhead, white flowers have grown, and pollinators have buzzed into to have their turn, mature plants drop shiny, round black seeds. If conditions allow, seeds may sprout the following spring. If not, they wait patiently for another season.