Every spring, folk of the temperate deciduous hardwood forests of eastern North America stalk the brown ground of the leafless woods in search of the season’s first wild edibles. Among the most well-known of these plant foods is Allium tricoccum, known colloquially as “wild leeks,” “ramps,” or “spring onions.” Wild leeks are among the first green to grace the forest floor, erupting shortly after the snow melts and the frost thaws. Their soft green leaves push up through the brown leaves pressed down by the weight of the winter’s snowpack. At first, the leaves are smaller than a pinkie finger, but within days, if it is warm, they are thumb-sized, then two thumbs-sized, then half as big as your hand.
Like most spring ephemerals, wild leeks take advantage of a small window of time between snowmelt and the leafing out of the forest canopy to undergo the majority of their life cycle. During this time, the ground is frost free, the days are warm, and sunlight is abundant on the forest floor. Perennial herbs with well-established roots, bulbs, and corms lie waiting all winter long, carbohydrates stored in their roots during the season before. When conditions are right, all the energy stored in their underground root systems moves upwards, forming stems, leaves, and flowers astonishingly quickly. Wild leeks, along with trout lilies, trilliums, Canada mayflowers, and spring beauties can break ground, leaf, and flower in just a few weeks. This is the opportune time to harvest these plants. In short, you harvest the part of the plant where the most energy is. Before leaf-out and before the leaves get mid-sized, the energy is mostly in the underground parts of the plant, where it has been stored all winter: roots, bulbs, tubers, and corms. As the leaves get bigger, more of the energy is transferred to them, and they become the most nutritious part of the plant to eat. Once flower buds and blossoms emerge, that’s where the energy is, and, last of all, it goes into the fruits. Most omnivorous mammals, such as black bears, know this well and eat accordingly.
Wild leeks are unique among their onion relatives (Allium spp.) because their leaves do not persist through their flowering time. In other words, their leaves grow early, they grow fast, then they wither and die and the plant transfers all its energy into the flowers. That’s why you never see wild leeks in the woods after May, unless you go looking for their old flower heads. What this means for harvesting them is that the window is short, typically the third week of April into mid-May in Craftsbury.
There are two ways two harvest wild leeks. One is a full harvest, which involves digging up the plant’s bulb (“onion”) as well as its leaves. From an eating perspective, this is the best! From an ecological perspective, it kills the plant. Not a big deal if only a few people are harvesting in a given area, but in places such as the southern Appalachians, where there are annual springtime “Ramps” festivals, entire populations of the plant get wiped out. A more sustainable way to harvest wild leeks is to forego the urge to eat the onion and settle for just the leaves. Don’t worry, there is plenty of flavor in them! Each plant usually produces three leaves, sometimes two or four. Harvesting one leaf per plant and leaving the others will allow the plant to persist for years without impacting the local population.