Last Updated on March 29, 2023
If you’re new to the mountains of Western North Carolina, you may be unfamiliar with ramps. “What’s this springtime obsession with inclined walkways?” we hear you asking. “Is this a mountain biking thing?”
Well, we do have our share of expert bikers in WNC, true. But in this case, the mania behind ramps is completely unrelated.
Keep reading for your beginner’s guide to ramps, what you do with this culinary delicacy, and where you can find them in WNC.
What are ramps?
If you’re a fan of cooking with aromatics, you’re going to love these pungent greens! Sometimes called ransoms or wild leeks, ramps (Allium tricoccum) are a type of wild onion. They are one of the earliest wild edibles to sprout in the spring across eastern Canada and the U.S. And because of our mountain climate, ramps are well established in WNC. Ramps taste like a cross between green garlic and onions. And they’re an excellent source of vitamin C.
What part of ramps do you eat?
Like many of your garden staples, all parts of a ramp are edible. However, like the related green onion, some parts of the plant are more pungent than others. “The leaves have the mildest flavor, followed by the [red or white] stems, leaving the truest ramp taste to be found in the bulbs,” according to Ramp It Up Cooking, a local resource.
Ramp leaves can be added raw to spring salads. Or you can dice the stems and bulb, and use them in place of onions, garlic, and especially scallions in your favorite recipes. Eating raw ramp bulbs is not for the faint of heart, so many saute them before adding to recipes. Here in the mountains, you can often find ramps chopped and added into biscuits, cornbread, and casseroles. They’re also a great addition to cream cheese for a fresh punch to morning bagels and afternoon charcuterie plates.
How can you spot ramps on your property?
Because of their short growing season and popularity, you may not know it if you have ramps on your property. However, if you think you might, here’s what to look for. Ramps have 1–3 broad leaves measuring 4–12 inches long, and have red or white stems. The leaves appear in early April and last until around mid-May, depending on your elevation. As temperatures get warmer, the leaves turn yellow and die. Find them on north-facing slopes of dense, deciduous forest canopy. The slopes offer the well-drained soil that the ramps prefer, and the canopy keeps the soil rich with organic matter.
If you choose to forage for ramps on your land, understand that there are some poisonous look-alike species. Make sure the plants you’re choosing smell clearly of garlic and onions. To keep ramp hunting sustainable, cut off the plant at the bulb above the roots and leave the roots intact in the ground. Better yet, take only one leaf from each multi-leaf plant.
Editor’s note: Great Smoky Mountains National Park banned ramp foraging in 2004 because of their endangered status. Do not forage for any wild edibles on any public lands or lands that you do not own.
Can you grow ramps?
If your property offers the right conditions, you can grow ramps at home. In the wild, these plants like cool, shady areas with soil that is moist, well-draining, loamy, and enriched with plenty of organic matter. They do well under the shade of large trees, except conifers.
Because ramps have short roots, they grow well in raised beds. And you can propagate them from seed, transplants, or divisions. Plants provided with the highest levels of calcium and the lowest soil pH did best in trials at North Carolina State University. However, they are slow growing compared to other onion species. It can take a year or more for seeds to germinate and another 7–10 years for the plant to reach maturity. Planting ramp seeds in the fall exposes it to the necessary cold weathering over the winter. That helps your ramps germinate in succeeding growing seasons.
Where can you buy ramps in WNC?
If neither foraging nor gardening are your thing, there are still ways to enjoy the bright, tangy taste of ramps this spring. You’ll spot ramp-infused cuisine on restaurant menus around town in the coming weeks. For the freshest options around, visit your local farmers market. Many local farmers will have some fresh ramps available at the start of the season. And for those uninitiated, you can also take the opportunity to ask the farmers about how to use ramps in your cooking.
Many local, seasonal products also feature ramps. One of our favorites is the seasonal ramp chevre from Three Graces Dairy! Their products are found at some EarthFares and co-ops around town, but it’s best to find their seasonal offerings at the farmers market. Happy hunting!