MORGANTOWN, WV — Though patches of wild onions, known as ramps, may appear thick and widespread for plucking each spring in Appalachia, West Virginia University experts cautions overharvesting is a threat in many locations, according to a news release.
“Ramps are also known as wild leeks and are native to West Virginia,” said Brian Sparks, WVU Extension agent, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Nicholas and Fayette counties. “They belong to the lily family, so they are a close relative of onion and garlic. Foliage develops quickly into flat, green leaves that are two inches wide and eight inches long at maturity. Once deciduous trees begin to canopy, the leaves of the ramps quickly disappear, but the bulb, just like an onion, remains in the soil. By this time, harvest has been completed in most areas of West Virginia. In the summer, the ramp will flower with three sepals and three petals and produce seeds. Once it’s bloomed, it goes dormant and reactivates when spring comes.
“Since we know how a ramp reproduces, we can take a few precautions when we harvest,” he said. “One, only cut the leaf and leave the bulb to continue growing. Two, if you must have the bulb part to eat, when you are digging, leave some of the bottom of the bulb, where the roots are, in the ground so it can have some chance of growing back. Three, nurture a patch by taking just 10% of the ramps annually and leave the rest to continue maturing.”
Melissa Marra, associate professor, nutritional sciences, School of Agriculture and Foods, WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, also warned against overharvesting.
“Ramps, the first green plant to emerge in the spring, were traditionally eaten by Native Americans as a tonic to replenish nutrients after the winter season,” she said. “In recent years, consumer demand has significantly increased due to local and wild food movements. They’re now considered a seasonal delicacy beyond their growing regions. Some estimates indicate that $15 million in ramps are sold each year in just a few weeks. The local and commercial increases in demand, coupled with the fact that the plants are slow-growing, put them in danger of being overharvested in some areas. Ramps can take up to seven years to grow to maturity from a seed. When they are harvested by taking the whole plant — root and all — before seeds are produced, they don’t grow back. One study estimated that it could take 22 years for a patch to recover when 25% of the area is harvested by foraging the whole plant. In some states like Maine, Rhode Island and Tennessee, ramps are listed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as ‘plants of special concern,’ as they are vulnerable to becoming endangered.
“Traditional ways to sustainably harvest the plants were to leave the bulbs or a portion, or by taking just the one leaf from a plant. We should be conscientious about the way we harvest ramps, so they are still around for future generations to enjoy.”