I first tasted ramps a couple of years ago when a friend presented me with a bunch she had bought at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City.
“You’ll love these,” she said as she handed me a strong-smelling cluster of leafy green stalks, wrapped in paper like a precious bouquet. “Think of them as garlicky spring onions.”
She was right. I did love them. I added finely chopped ramps to risotto, folded them into scrambled eggs, and made pesto. I even went to a dinner at a local restaurant in which every course featured the pungent green. I was hooked.
The only problem was getting more. Allium tricoccum, better known as ramps or wild leeks, are available at farmers’ markets for just a few weeks in early spring, and are eagerly snapped up by chefs and home cooks alike. Once available only to savvy foragers on the East Coast, these native plants have become a foodie sensation across the country.
Ramps’ current popularity amuses some longtime fans of the vegetable. “In recent history, hunters and fishermen ate most of the ramps,” says Jeanine Davis, an associate professor of horticultural science at North Carolina State University, who has been studying ramps since 1997. “When my husband and his friends went trout fishing in early spring, they picked ramps, fried them up with potatoes and eggs, and ate them morning, noon, and night. Unfortunately, ramps have a notorious smell that can emanate from your skin, so he’d have to sleep on the couch for several days after he got back.”
But even before sportsmen discovered them, early settlers and Native Americans treasured ramps as a spring tonic, something healthy and green to eat after months of potatoes and turnips. Ramps grow in rich, moist forest areas, in a region stretching from north Georgia to Canada, and appear in very early spring, just after the snow has melted. For many people, ramps were the only green they would be able to harvest for weeks, maybe months. Ramp festivals are still held in many parts of the South.