Appalachian Travel: Springtime Brings Wild Ramp Season in Southeast Ohio
The region is ground zero for the native delicacy, also known as wild leeks and wild garlic.
In Appalachia, spring is ramp season. Part of the allium family, ramps—also known as wild leeks and wild garlic—have long been used by Appalachian and Indigenous communities, both for cooking and medicinal applications. But in recent years, the plant’s popularity has spread, turning this wild food into a seasonal must-have for chefs and foodies alike.
Karam Sheban is the sustainable forestry director at Rural Action, a nonprofit focused on community development in Appalachian Ohio. He noticed ramps “hitting trendy restaurants in urban areas” around 2015. “I think part of that is motivated by environmental consciousness, people being generally interested in connecting more with the food that they eat, understanding where it comes from, and thinking locally,” Sheban says.
But first, what exactly are ramps? Their wide, flat, green leaves are anywhere from 7 to 12 inches long. Their lower stems have a purple tint, and their white bulbs look similar to those of scallions. They’re known as understory plants—vegetation that grows under tree canopies—and they bloom in clusters in forests across the eastern United States and eastern Canada. The plant is a perennial that is harvested in April and May. The taste of ramps is often described as something between an onion and garlic.
Rosie Berardi grew up with ramps. She was raised on a large farm in Athens County, and her mom often cooked with the plant. Today, Berardi and her mom own Triple Nickel Diner in Chesterhill, about 20 miles northeast of Athens. Her mom’s partner has several acres of land where ramps grow, so each spring they harvest the plant to use in dishes at the restaurant. Diners can enjoy a ramp- and feta-stuffed burger, steak-wrapped ramps and asparagus, and ramp funnel cakes, which Berardi describes as having “that bite of the onion with sweet all around it.”
Ramps’ increasing popularity—paired with their short season, high asking price and unique growing conditions—has also made them susceptible to overharvesting: people taking the entire plant (root, bulb, leaves) and too many plants. When a person removes the entire ramp, the plant cannot grow back the following year.
Sheban advises harvesting just the leaves and always leaving more ramps than you take. While there’s no definitive number, he says a good rule of thumb is to take no more than 10 percent of a given ramp population.
For those who have the land, Sheban suggests looking into forest farming. Rural Action also hosts regular workshops in the Athens area for those who want to try growing ramps or other native plants on their private land. You can even purchase ramp bulbs from Rural Action during its annual sale in early March.
This story is from the Appalachian Spring feature package in the April 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.