For most people, the first signs of spring are birds chirping and flowers blooming. But in West Virginia, we know that spring has sprung when the ramps are ripe for harvesting. What is a ramp, you ask? Ramps are a type of wild onion that can be found in mountainous regions along the east coast, and they are quite popular across Appalachia. Known to some as wild leeks or spring onions, the plant is characterized by a unique garlic-and-onion flavor profile. While ramps have been a staple in Appalachian kitchens for decades, this plant has gained a cult following in recent years. In fact, several towns throughout West Virginia host festivals and other events to celebrate this tasty Appalachian plant.
Last week, I went ramp-foraging for the first time and picked up some tips from hobbyist ramp forager, Bennett McKinley. This guy knows his ramps. He’s grown up with a hillside full of ramps in his backyard and spends time each spring harvesting this funky plant with his family. I asked him to share some of his ramp-related wisdom with those of us who are new to foraging our area’s edible plants.
How would you describe the flavor profile to someone who hasn’t tried a ramp?
The flavor is a combination of onion and garlic. One of my favorite things to do is to eat the first one I pull in spring raw, straight out of the earth. Which if you’ve ever eaten raw onion or garlic, you know how spicy of a flavor that can be.
Where do ramps typically like to grow? How can I identify them?
Where I live, they’re typically near hillside streams, however, I’ve found the occasional patch in the middle of nowhere. You can identify them in early spring with their green leaves shooting up out of the ground in small clusters or patches. The leaves are flat and broad, maybe 6-10 inches long. The “onion bulb” grows just below the soil. It’s important to carefully dig around the base and loosen the soil before pulling the ramp free, otherwise, you’ll snap the greens off.
What’s your favorite way to prepare ramps?
I have a few methods that I love. The first is to sauté the onion whites with potatoes in some butter. There isn’t much better than crispy, salted potatoes and ramps. My second favorite is to pickle them. I plan to pickle a couple of jars this season to have some around long after the picking season is over. Finally, all of the above methods only use bulbs, the greens can be turned into a killer pesto. Be warned—any method will give you some gnarly breath for a while.
Is ramp foraging sustainable? What are some tips for enjoying these plants without endangering them?
My wife and I take care to ensure that we are harvesting the ramps in a sustainable way. We’re no experts, but we take care to differ where we pick from every season, to allow for new growth. We never pick too many that might completely eradicate a cluster. We recognize there is some concern for the sustainability of ramps, and we would never want to be responsible for the devastation of such a tasty species!
If you aren’t quite ready to lace up your hiking boots to forage your own ramps, there are some options to purchase and celebrate ramps locally. The Wheeling Artisan Center Shop has a collection of ramp-themed items, including pickled ramps, ramp salt and a ramp enamel pin. You can find many of these items online, and you can explore even more in-store.
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The Public Market is also showing their love for ramps with a special Ramp Week menu at the market. They are making the most of this seasonal treat with specials like ramp bagels, ramp pesto pizza, ramp burgers and more! You can also purchase fresh ramps to prepare something special in your own kitchen. If you stop by Sarah’s on Main this weekend, you can pick up some homemade ramp butter and sourdough bread, or a fresh bagel with ramp cream cheese!
Will you be foraging ramps this spring? What are your favorite ways to prepare them?
• Alex Panas is the Program Manager for Wheeling Heritage, where she works with artists, small business owners, and community stakeholders to provide technical assistance and create meaningful programs that enhance Wheeling. She also serves as the managing editor for Weelunk. Alex lives in St. Clairsville with her husband where they raise four cats and four spunky backyard chickens.