Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Wild Foods: Take Fewer Leeks

Deep fried ramps sign at Mason Dixon Ramp Fest in Mt. Morris, Pennsylvania Friends and family understand that some of my dinners can be pretty wild. For example, right now they may include mashed sunchoke or “Jerusalem artichoke” tubers that escaped the voles and mice over the winter, as well as a steaming plate of tender, sweet nettles. (When cooked, the latter lose their sting, becoming tame as kittens. Better even, because they don’t shed.)

But the tastiest wild food around in very early spring is our native wild leek, Allium tricoccum, a.k.a. wild garlic, spring onion, or ramp (from “ramson,” a name for a similar European species). It pushes its light green leaves up through the leaf litter in hardwood forests along eastern North America, from Québec and Ontario south to South Carolina, in very early spring. They grow in clumps, occasionally forming large colonies which in some places carpet the forest floor. They last for only a few weeks, fading away by late June.

In terms of evolution, early-spring plants such as wild leeks and trout lilies, and to a lesser extent trilliums, have found a handy niche in the hardwood forest ecosystem. By emerging first they get their pick of nutrients contained in the melted snow before the competition wakes up. They are also assured of ample moisture before they become dormant. And because there are no leaves on overstory trees, they get lots of sunlight. Which is lucky for us, as a large swath of emerald-green wild leeks in full sun is really a marvel to behold.

The flavor of wild leeks is described as a mix of garlic and onion. The whole plant is typically dug up, roots included, and all parts of it are used. Its modest bulb is absent on young plants which are just emerging, but it matures by the time the plant fades. The bulb is used like garlic or onion, and some like it pickled. The broad leaf, similar in size and shape to those of lily or tulip, can be chopped fresh and used in salads, but it is usually cooked along with the scallion-like stem in a soup, stir-fry, omelet or other savory dish.

Allium tricoccum has a long history of being harvested from the wild, and sold at markets or in grocery stores. With the advent of the “locavore” and “foodie” movements, wild leeks are in higher demand than ever. Unfortunately, this has put them at increased risk of being over-harvested at the same time their populations are fast dwindling.

One of the problems is that wild leeks reproduce very slowly, taking 5-7 years to fully mature and make seeds to complete their life cycle. Even the seeds take 2 years to germinate. In the words of Jacob Richler, writing for Maclean’s magazine in May 2014, “…wild leeks mature and breed about as efficiently as sharks.” The same article says that according to researchers in Quebec, harvesting more than 5% of the leeks annually in any given area is unsustainable.

In the province of Québec, wild leeks were nearly wiped out over large regions. Leeks are now listed as a threatened plant there, and a ban on commercial harvesting has been in place since 1995. Québec residents are only allowed to pick 50 plants a year for personal use. According to Andrée Nault, a researcher at the Montréal Biodôme, authorities seized 444,000 bulbs from poachers in 1999, which were (bulbs, not poachers) all planted by volunteers.

Portions of Tennessee and South Carolina are also subject to harvest bans as of 2004. On Federal forest land, a harvest permit is required to pick any amount of leeks. In New York State, it is legal to harvest wild leeks on NYS land, with the exception of a sub-species (so-called “Burdick’s leek”) in Chautauqua County.

However, a growing number of people are calling on New York State Department of Environmental Conservation officials to take steps to limit the harvest of wild leeks. Many conservation groups recommend not only limiting the harvest to 5% of a patch, but only taking the greens, which leaves the bulb to continue maturing the next year.

I do advocate enjoying wild foods, but when you’re out in the woods this spring, please think twice before taking a leek.

Photo: Deep fried ramps sign at Mason Dixon Ramp Fest in Mt. Morris, Pennsylvania courtesy Wikimedia user MrBill3.

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Paul Hetzler

A Canton, NY-based arborist, educator and writer, Paul Hetzler had intended to be a bear when he grew up, but failed the audition. He settled for an educator position instead, and serves as Horticulture and Natural Resources Educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine. He is the author of Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World.

You can reach Paul at the Cornell Cooperative Extension office in Canton at (315) 379-9192.


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20 Responses

  1. Jim S. says:

    I was drawn in by the sophisticated humor and also learned a valuable lesson, thank you.

  2. Randy Fredlund says:

    Am I correct in assuming that on my own property, I can take a leek anytime I want?

  3. geogymn says:

    Whilst harvesting leeks one might want to browse like deer do. Take a handful and then move on to the next patch.

  4. Paul says:

    “In New York State, it is legal to harvest wild leeks on NYS land”. Paul, is this true on Forest Preserve land?

    • John Warren John Warren says:

      Regarding the harvesting of leeks on Forest Preserve lands (all state lands in the Adirondack Park.

      USE OF STATE LANDS REGULATON 190.8(g) states: No person shall deface, remove, destroy or otherwise injure in any manner whatsoever any tree, flower, shrub, fern, fungi or other plant like organisms, moss or other plant, rock, soil, fossil or mineral or object of archaeological or paleontological interest found or growing on State land, except for personal consumption [emphasis added] or under permit from the Commissioner of Environmental Conservation and the Commissioner of Education, pursuant to section 233 of the Education Law.

      So the answer is that people can harvest berries, fiddleheads, and other edibles (except rare, threatened, or endangered plants that are otherwise protected) for their personal consumption. They cannot be harvested for resale.

  5. Tim-Brunswick says:

    OMG….all this concern about wild leeks and.. sure let’s put another a law on the books….after all it is New York where it is virtually impossible to live your life without intentionally or unintentionally breaking a law.

    The world is going to H–l and we’re on the brink of nuclear war, but by golly lets start governing and regulating the harvest of wild leeks……unbelievable!

    • Paul Hetzler Paul Hetzler says:

      No one is suggesting we regulate the harvest of wild leeks here. In parts of Quebec, leeks have been entirely wiped out over huge areas, so felt they they had to do something. For those who love the woods, it is good to be aware that on the whole (even though they may be regionally abundant), leeks are beginning to disappear throughout their range.

      • Paul says:

        “However, a growing number of people are calling on New York State Department of Environmental Conservation officials to take steps to limit the harvest of wild leeks. ” Sounds like maybe these folks are suggesting it? Might be a good idea if people can’t follow the suggestions you are making.

    • Dylan Cipkowski says:

      Tim, maybe you should write an article about the nuclear threats we face? Would that be more appropriate for this news outlet? If you think so, please, go for it; looking forward to learning more from you.

      I think you miss the point. Leeks can be “fished” out the same way trout can, so if too much pressure is put on them from harvesting, there wont be any left to “catch”. If only there were past experiences our state endured that we could learn from… oh wait: remember that time deer, canada geese, fisher, moose, wolves, beaver, and wild turkey were extirpated from most of NYS and the Northeast in general from over harvesting? Good thing the big bad government didn’t step in and impose rules and regs on our harvesting of those species.

  6. John Warren John Warren says:

    Regarding the harvesting of leeks on Forest Preserve lands (all state lands in the Adirondack Park.

    USE OF STATE LANDS REGULATON 190.8(g) states: No person shall deface, remove, destroy or otherwise injure in any manner whatsoever any tree, flower, shrub, fern, fungi or other plant like organisms, moss or other plant, rock, soil, fossil or mineral or object of archaeological or paleontological interest found or growing on State land, except for personal consumption [emphasis added] or under permit from the Commissioner of Environmental Conservation and the Commissioner of Education, pursuant to section 233 of the Education Law.

    So the answer is that people can harvest berries, fiddleheads, and other edibles (except rare, threatened, or endangered plants that are otherwise protected) for their personal consumption. They cannot be harvested for resale.

  7. Charlie S says:

    “…but when you’re out in the woods this spring, please think twice before taking a leek.”

    A good way to close Paul. I like your humor. I bought my first ramps two Saturday’s ago at the Farmers Market. They came from a farmer in Montgomery County who said he has way more than he can handle on his property. These were clean and erect leafs, very handsome ramps! His price was $4. a bunch or $10. for three bunches. I bought six bunches for $20. with one salad to go with them. The Co-op in Albany were selling theirs for $5.99 a bunch and they weren’t even as near as clean and good-looking as those from Montgomery County, and worse…they were limp. One of the best things about this time of year…ramps. I can’t seem to get enough of them and am hoping this farmer has more ramps come Saturday!

  8. Boreas says:

    Are they difficult to grow ? If not, maybe people who love them should plant and propagate them them instead of removing them from state lands – whether it is legal or not.

    • Paul Hetzler Paul Hetzler says:

      I transplanted some a few years ago, and they established readily and have spread.

      • Boreas says:

        I remember my dad had a nice plot of them at the edge of the back yard. I think he found a few here and there on the property and transplanted them to the edge of the garden where they propagated over the years. But that was in the snowbelt of PA.

  9. Carol says:

    Even better than not pulling the bulb is only taking one leaf per plant.

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