Clint Ferguson

It’s the time of the year to hit the woods for some spring tonic, the smelly but tasty, West Virginia ramp.  It finally stopped raining long enough to make it out this past weekend for the first mess of the year.  The ramps were easy to dig with the saturated ground.

 A ramp (Allium tricoccum) is actually a wild leek with edible leaves and roots.  They are native to the deciduous forests of eastern North America.  These plants are the first green color in the Appalachian woodlands which is a sure sign spring is here.  Ramps normally appear in late March and early April in cool, shady areas with damp soil.  The plants hang around until the leaves on the trees come out and drown out the sunlight reaching the forest floor.

The leaves on a ramp have deep maroon streak markings at the base and along the parallel veins.  There are two broad leaves, 2 inches wide and over 6 inches long, per each bulb.  Lilies also have veins that run in parallel orderly rows.  Like the commercial varieties of garlic and onions, ramps are lilies.  Lilies have flowers in either 3 or 6 petals, and grow from large underground bulbs.

After the sunlight is shaded out by the forest canopy, the ramp’s leaves wither and die.  Only a single bud is left on a stalk.  This bud opens in June or July and forms a cluster of white florets.  The flowers are a quarter-inch in size and contain a three-lobed seed capsule and three petals, such making it a lily.  Ramps reproduce by bulb offsets and seeds.  Large colonies can blanket an entire hillside.

The name “ramp” comes from the British Isles, where a related plant grows wild.  The early settlers first called them by the folk name “ramsen”, which is the plural form of an Old English word for wild garlic.  Over the years Appalachia folks shortened the word to just plain “ramp”.  Also, they appear during the zodiac sign of Aries the ram and the word ramp means the son of ram.

Native Americans would look forward to spring because the ramp provided food and spices after a long winter.  They believed in them as spring tonic that cleansed the blood.  Modern science has confirmed this because ramps contain vitamin C and combat hypertension.  Ramps also increase the production of high density lipoproteins, which in turn are believed to combat heart disease by reducing blood serum levels of cholesterol.

Ramps can be cooked several different ways, but the most common way is to fry them with potatoes in a skillet.  Serve them with bacon and eggs for a tasty dinner.  Some say they taste like a cross between an onion and garlic.  The only problem for some people is that the odor will come out of the skin pores for a few days after eating them.  So, if you want to social distance yourself; eat a good mess of ramps.

I have found ramps in West Virginia in Braxton, Nicholas, Webster, Greenbrier, Randolph, Pocahontas, Pendleton, Tucker, and Grant counties.  Most native West Virginians have there own particular locations they visit each year to collect these stinky yet tasty mountain treats, but ramps grow in abundance wherever they are found.

Morel mushrooms will be next on the menu and available for picking in the West Virginia hills and hollows in a couple of weeks.  The blooming spring wildflowers and beautiful budding redbud and dogwoods are always a welcome sight.  Spring is here and there’s no better time to get outside for some fresh air than now!   

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