Discovering wild leeks

Wild leek

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.

Identification

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.


Comments

Discovering wild leeks — 6 Comments

  1. Pingback: Victoria Day garden idyll | Speed River Journal

  2. Identification of Allium tricoccum is not so straightforward. Allium tricoccum var. burdickii (syn Allium burdickii), though sometimes locally abundant, is a series of concern (ranked S1). Though it often has petioles of a lighter colour, it can only be reliably distinguished when in flower. I would say learning to positively identify A. tricoccum var. burdickii is probably a huge ethical concern for people who are concerned about conservation.

    • Thanks for pointing this out, Michael. I hadn’t heard of A. burdickii and there’s scarce information about it online, particularly with reference to Ontario. NatureServe lists it as “critically imperiled” in Ontario, Nova Scotia and Tennessee and “possibly extirpated” in New York. Ontario’s list of species at risk makes no mention of it. This is probably because its status as a distinct species is controversial. Regardless of species status, we should be aware and protect biodiversity.

      The best description I could find distinguishing the two varieties was on Wikipedia: “A. tricoccum var. tricoccum is generally larger than A. tricoccum var. burdickii: the bulbs are larger, the leaves are usually 5–9 cm (2.0–3.5 in) wide rather than 2–4 cm (0.8–1.6 in) wide and the umbels typically have 30–50 flowers rather than 12–18. Additionally, the leaf stalks (petioles) and leaf sheaths are usually purplish in var. tricoccum and white in var. burdickii. The leaves of var. burdickii also have less distinct stalks than those of var. tricoccum.”

      However, another website I visited suggested even the common form of wild leek must be treated more carefully than I indicated in my post. Populations can only support a 10 percent harvest once every 10 years. If you harvest it, don’t take the whole bulb; use a knife to cut above the base as I suggested. The article also advised waiting until after the plant produces seed and distributing seeds upon harvest.

      I’ll re-emphasize that wild leeks are a woodland species. They have only a few weeks in spring to perform photosynthesis and store energy for the next season before the forest canopy closes and the leek’s leaves die back. Consequently they reproduce more slowly than plants in meadows and disturbed ground. So the rule of thumb for harvesting only 10 percent of a plant, which might be fine with a prolific species like stinging nettles, will be inappropriate for most woodland denizens.

      • You fail to mention that it is illegal to remove plants from land you don’t own. Whether the woods behind your house are public or private land, collecting leeks is theft.

        The bulb of the leek is the regenerative part, pulling it kills the plant even if you leave roots behind. It takes 7 years for a wild leek to grow from seed to edible size. Please don’t collect them.

        If you want to try wild leeks, consider growing them under shrubs or trees in your yard. Plants are available from native plant nurseries and are easy to grow. They will spread slowly by seed and by expanding clumps. Once established, you can harvest your own.

        • Thanks for this comment, Judy. I found Allium burdickii plants are available from Hortico Nurseries. Seeds A. tricoccum are available from several companies that handle native species.

          Here’s also a cautionary article from Macleans, urging us to avoid wild leeks in most cases, even those available from farmers’ markets: Hands off those wild leeks.

  3. Pingback: [BLOG] Some pop culture links | A Bit More Detail

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *