One of the first signs of spring throughout Central and Eastern Canada are those early green shoots we grab to freshen up our market baskets. And there’s one you’ve probably heard a lot about in recent years: the ramp. Similar in appearance to the leaves on lily of the valley, its short season lasts only for a few weeks during April or May, making it a hot commodity at this time every year. But our insatiable appetite for this trendy ingredient is also endangering it.
Ramps are arguably the most beautifully flavoured allium around. With their rich, garlicky bulbs and aromatic, tender leaves, these wild leeks have gained popularity with home cooks and terroir-minded chefs alike. (You’ll see them whole-grilled over charcoal, torn over soft scrambled eggs and salads, and even pickled.) And as the consumption of foraged foods gains momentum every year, we’re lucky to have access to a strong supply of wild mushrooms, greens, nuts, berries and roots that are all rich in gorgeous, intense flavours not found in cultivated produce. But the ramp is quite unlike these other edibles, and less plentiful; by harvesting or buying whole ramps we’re actually destroying this incredibly delicate plant — potentially to the point of no return.
There’s a rule of thumb among most ethical foragers: always take less than ten percent of what you see to reduce any potential damage to the plants that are being harvested. But even ten percent is too much for ramps, which have an incredibly long life cycle. Not only does it take on average up to seven years for a ramp to go to seed, it can then take almost two years for that seed to actually germinate and produce a new ramp. Some are even older, according to Mallory Vanier, at Ontario Nature’s Boreal Program, “a mature bulb could be 15 to 20 years old. And as soon as you pull that bulb from the ground you’re completely ending its life cycle.”
Over-harvesting has become so problematic, ramps are listed as a threatened and protected species in the province of Quebec with strict legislation in place regarding both harvesting and consumption. And because of these harsh regulations, it has created a black market of smugglers who dig up ramp patches in Quebec, then cross into Ontario where they can be legally sold for a hefty price. Vanier notes, “[going forward] there may need to be rules put in place for Ontario that are in line with Quebec’s; public awareness is the key to bring it to the forefront so we can resolve these issues.”
As ramps are not cultivated for sale (they’re strictly found in the wild), it’s difficult to know if they were harvested ethically, unless you have a reputable source that you know and trust. But that doesn’t mean you have to live the rest of your life without them. If you’re interested in foraging, a small amount of ramps can be safely picked by cutting their stem just above where it sprouts from the ground, leaving you with delicious greens while keeping their bulbs safely in the soil to continue to regrow for years to come.
If you do decide to try your hand at foraging, starting with a local tour is a good way to learn what’s safe to eat (and okay to take home). Ontario Nature foraging trips, according to Vanier, go through these main points: “we focus on sustainability. It’s basically having respect for what you’re harvesting.”