Ramps announce the arrival of spring in the woods. Many folks eagerly anticipate using the savory plants as a spring tonic to get them out of the winter blues. Ramps are known as wild leeks, which are native to West Virginia. They belong to the lily family and are close relatives of the onion and garlic. Ramps take advantage of the early spring sunlight to grow before the trees leaf out. The foliage remains green for approximately six weeks, turns yellow and then disappears. The bulbs, like onions, remain in the soil.
In the middle of summer, the ramp will produce tiny white flowers and later develop shiny black seeds. Once the seeds have ripened, they will fall to the ground. Ramps are like no other leeks, because the seeds can take a year or more to germinate in the forest. Wild ramps usually are found in patches of hundreds and even thousands. The soil below deciduous trees provides adequate nutrients and moisture for them to thrive.
If you enjoy the flavor of ramps, you can add some to your woodlands if you can find a few plants in the spring. Plant the bulb 2 inches deep. Ramps will thrive in moist, shady hillsides. In about five to 10 years, you will be able to harvest a few. Growing ramps from seeds is possible, but it takes patience. The ramp seeds must have the dormancy mechanism broken to get them to germinate. This can be accomplished by planting the seeds in the fall and allowing cold weather exposure. Then, the seed will germinate the following season.
This seasonal plant is an Appalachian delight that everyone should experience in the spring. And, if you want to preserve this wonderful crop, try growing a few for future generations to enjoy.
By Brian Sparks, WVU Extension Agent – Fayette and Nicholas Counties