The limits of wild harvesting

Sweeps of naturalized scilla fill the lawn in April.

An article in the April 20 New York Times food section reveals concerns about over-harvesting ramps in the wild. Some sources recommend harvesting no more than 10% of the bed in a given year. Ramps have been declared a threatened species in some areas. However, officials in New York State say ramps are not being over-harvested in our state. That may well be because the plant is less known and somewhat less sought after in the northern states. That is, despite the ramp-rage in NYC restaurants and farmer’s markets.

It’s common sense not to decimate a wild patch – but just how much can you safely harvest and what other approaches can you take to make sure you are treating your wild plants sustainably? The answers are controversial and unscientific at this point. Consider the following options: Take only the largest bulbs (and therefore oldest plants). Watch for the tiny grassy seedlings and leave those, along with smaller ramps, in the ground for future growth. Never take a whole clump, leave half in the ground. Move deeper into the woods so you don’t gather all in one place.  Don’t share the same spot with other foragers. Don’t treat it as a money crop unless you are replanting and allowing enough years for the plants to mature.

What about domestication? Each year I’ve been bringing home small clumps of ramps to plant in the shady sections of my garden. Good shade, low spots, and areas that get extra rain from downspouts are perfect for home cultivation of ramps. Fallen leaves left in place over winter offer them protection, moisture and nourishment. Three years after my first planting, I’m starting to see a few more, but I still have not harvested any from our garden. Once acclimated, these wild plants can be expansive colonizers, but they also die back completely in June. Meanwhile the leaves resemble lily of the valley or tulips and blend in well with the rest of my early green garden. Digging in my backyard is not as enticing as a wild walk in the woods, but I want to be sure that ramps thrive throughout my life and continue to feed the next generation of foragers. A walk in the woods or around our plentiful rural fields is always a joy, and I don’t need to bring home a harvest every time I go out.

Seed heads

Allium seed head with black seeds visible, similar to the ramp seeds

On my last ramp walk I discovered the ramp seed heads. exciting news to me. I had been doing some internet research on ramps – there are many enthusiasts out there, as well as Cooperative Extensions to learn from. On one site I found a photo of the seed head in its stages. I have never seen the blooms,  mostly because I stop going to those woods in early June when the ramps are dying back. But having seen a photo, I could now see the seeds. Mostly they were empty pods, buried under the autumn leaf fall, but I found several heads with the tiny black pearl seeds still intact. If you have seen other allium go to seed in your garden, ramp seeds will look familiar. This summer I will go back to the woods to gather seeds. I will share seeds with local farmers as well as right here on our block.

I love the idea of having ramps as the first harvest in my own garden plot; I don’t have to go for a drive to get them.

Read more about ramps and the issues of wild harvest in this article by Indrani Sen:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/20/dining/20forage.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=wild%20leeks&st=cse

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About barbaraprice

Artist, Food writer, book editor, gardener
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