In the woods behind our house I was delighted to find wild leeks, also known as ramps or Allium tricoccum. I’ve never encountered them before. These native food plants are so delectable even Martha Stewart approves and suggests some ways to use them. But when foraging for any wild edible observe two important cautions.
First, be absolutely sure of identification. Don’t risk eating something poisonous. It’s best to start with an experienced wildcrafting mentor to learn the basics, especially what to avoid. Use a good field guide.
Lily-of-the-valley closely resembles the wild leek, and it’s deadly poisonous. However, break the foliage of a wild leek and it will give a distinctive garlic-like scent. It also has a diagnostic reddish-purple stem and onion-shaped bulb, unlike lily-of-the-valley.
Wild leeks like rich soil in deciduous woods throughout Eastern North America. The leaves can be harvested in early spring. The plants need to do all their photosynthesis and store energy for next growing season before tree leaves unfurl. Once the canopy closes, wild leeks die back. The flower stalk appears later.
Be a conservationist
Here’s the second important precaution: think like a conservationist. Anyone who doesn’t respect a valuable source of nutritious food and can’t be bothered to harvest it sustainably has no business foraging. Wild leeks have been so depleted in Quebec that they’re now protected. Help ensure that ramps and other wild edibles remain abundant for next year and the next generation of foragers.
Never take more than 10 percent of the plants. And select one or two other strategies to ensure a continuing source of wild leeks for everyone who wants to enjoy them:
- Collect only from large beds of plants, leaving small colonies to grow.
- Digging into the soil, use a pocket knife to cut the bulb above the base, leaving the roots to regenerate.
- While the bulbs are delicious, the green leaves are also tender and packed with intense onion-garlic flavour. Each plant has two leaves, so take one and let the other nourish the root.
- Start a new colony by transplanting one or two bulbs into a nearby, similar patch of ground that doesn’t have any plants.
- Avoid trampling nearby wildflowers; they need protection, too.
This week I enjoyed cooking wild leeks in a mushroom and cheese omelet, and in crab and asparagus soup. I’m also eager to forage for stinging nettles to combine them with ramps in a zesty spring pesto.
Enjoy spring foraging and let us know how you like to use ramps for a culinary sensation.