Do you dig it? Please don’t
Sustainable ramp harvesting crucial to future harvests
By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
Even though Cherokee has had a few snowy days as of late, Spring is not too far off and it will be time, once again, for that best-of-pungent delights – ramps. Many mountain communities, including Cherokee, hold annual ramp festivals.
But, with the ever-pressing demand comes an ever-pressing issue of sustainability.
Plant experts stress that ramps should be cut while in the ground and not dug.
“The biggest impact on local ramp populations is these fundraiser ramp dinners where they harvest hundreds of pounds of ramps at a time and they use spades and shovels,” said Kevin Welch, coordinator for the Center for Cherokee Plants. “They take them out by the roots and all. People harvesting ramps to sell with the roots on do not care about the long term sustainability of ramps. They probably just are not educated about sustainable harvesting or understand how long it takes to regrow a ramp patch.”
In an article entitled “Cultivation of Ramps”, published by N.C. State University, Jackie Greenfield, agricultural research technician, and Jeanine M. Davis, extension horticultural specialist, discuss the cultivation and harvesting of ramps (Allium tricoccum and A. burdickii).
“Ramps…also known as wild leeks, are native to the eastern North American mountains,” they write. “They can be found growing in patches in rich, moist, deciduous forests and bottoms from as far north as Canada, west to Missouri and Minnesota, and south to North Carolina and Tennessee. In early spring, ramps send up smooth, broad, lily-of-the-valley-like leaves that disappear by summer before the white flowers appear. The bulbs have the pleasant taste of sweet spring onions with a strong garlic-like aroma.”
Greenfield and Davis stress the importance of sustainability in their article. “To have continuous harvest year after year, harvest only one-fifth or one-seventh of your production area each year. When harvesting a portion of a plot, no more than 15 percent of the ramps should be removed.”
They state it takes from five to seven years for production from sowing seeds to root harvest.
Ramps (Allium tricoccum) have long been an important part of the diet of many Americans. So important, that a major Midwestern city is named for the pungent plant.
According to an essay by John F. Swenson, published in the Winter 1991 Illinois Historic Journal, “The name Chicago is derived from the local Indian word chicagoua for the native garlic plant (not onion) Allium tricoccum. This garlic (in French: ail sauvage) grew in abundance on the south end of Lake Michigan on the wooded banks of the extensive river system which bore the same name, chicagoua.”
This long history is why many people are concerned about the future sustainability of the plant.
“I’m afraid that ramp patches are being wiped out by people who are not following the Cherokee traditional ways of harvesting,” said Sarah McClellan-Welch, EBCI extension agent. “When I hear of ramps being sold with the roots on I fear that ramp patch is probably gone. Every Cherokee person I have ever asked how to harvest ramps, no matter how young or how old, has always shown me the same, careful, individual ramp harvesting method done with a pocketknife. They leave the roots and the base of the bulb in place to regrow.”