By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society
Listen, children, and I will tell you how an onion by another name gave us the name of the city of Chicago. The onion in question, Allium tricoccum — also known as ramps, spring onion, ramson, wild leek and wild garlic — is an eastern North American native with an extensive roster of European and Asian cousins. “Ramson” is its English cousin, and Allium tricoccum is sometimes called by that name in the New World as well. “Tricoccum” refers to the plant having three seeds.
As an onion, ramps grow as a perennial bulb, and they grow wild wherever their habitat hasn’t been degraded. Often the first greens of spring, both the scallion-like stalk and the leaves are edible. The harbinger of spring, ramps are cause for various festivals in April and May, notably in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. In some parts of North America, ramps have been over harvested, and foraging for them is limited by local law.
Early French explorers found a marshy area, lush with ramps, near Lake Michigan, along a river named by local native tribes after their word for ramps, shikaakwa. It was somewhere in translation from that to English by way of French that this became “Chicago.”
Their timing may be the reason they’re a frequent component of spring tonics. Cherokee, Ojibwa and Iroquois people have used ramps in decoctions to “clean you out” for spring. High in vitamin C, ramps may have saved a lot of folks from scurvy after a long, hard winter.
More garlicky than scallions, stronger than leeks, ramps have been very trendy for some time, and available in upscale grocers for a hefty price (something along the lines of $20 a pound).
To forage sustainably harvest as the Cherokee did and do: leave the bulb. Use a sharp tool (the handy hori hori knife is perfect) and carefully cut away stalk and leaf. And don’t take more than you need. After all, ramps are glorious, but how many can you grill, pickle and sauté before you incur ramp fatigue? Glory in what is in season, in moderation, and life is good for you…and the ramps.