Ramps at Risk: Is Overforaging a Problem?

Ramps were responsible for the naming of Chicago

Ramp season is officially upon us. Across North America, ramp festivals are in full swing bringing together foragers, gourmands, wild foodies, and the gastronomically curious to enjoy wild leeks at their peak.

Over two million ramps will be consumed in the United States this year, and as foraging becomes an increasingly popular trend, long-time wild food advocates are warning that unsustainable foraging may be putting ramps at risk.

Ramps, also known as wild leeks, are a type of spring onion that have a pungent garlicky odor, and taste much like a combination between garlic, scallions and leeks. As the sustainable food movement grows, organic and upscale restaurants are putting ramps on the menu, and increasing the demand. What is now a foodie trend, once was a plant used primarily by the poor who prized it as a tonic that could ward off the lingering ailments of winter.

The city of Chicago was named after the ramp. The name "Chicago" derives from a word used in a Native American language meaning "striped skunk" - a word they also used to describe the stinky plant. Ramps were also popular among many Native American groups, who used the plant to treat coughs and cold, as well as to treat bee stings.

This recent resurgence in popularity has some worried over the sustainability of foraging for ramps. Ethnobotanist Lawrence Davis-Hollander explains:

It's the most ironical question. There are two major food movements running through this country right now. One is the heavily industrial-based processed food trend. The other is the locally grown, sustainable, supposedly environmentally friendly food movement – the farm-to-table movement, as it's often called. Unfortunately this idea of foraging has morphed into 'what can we get out of ramps?' It's become commercialized in many circles. Like anything else, if you start harvesting millions of them, how long are they going to be around?

Davis-Hollander compares ramps to ginseng, which is now almost extinct in the natural woodlands of North America. As ginseng's popularity grew, it became commercialized and was carelessly harvested. Ramps are slow-growing plants, and many novice foragers and those taking economic advantage of the increased demand are harvesting bulbs that are much too young, threatening the future of the plant.

In many ways, the recent ramp debate serves as a microcosm for the sustainable food movement itself. The tension between preserving the environment and making real, affordable and tasty food available to as many people as possible is strong. Organics are becoming increasingly commercialized, reaching more people, but oftentimes losing the spirit of the organic vision in the process. "Sustainability" means different things to varied interests, and these interests are all trying to squeeze onto the same stage.

Purists and pragmatists have much to learn from each other, and understanding the delicate balance required to preserve and protect food is a necessary starting point for any fruitful discussion.

Photo Credit: Danielle Scott