Celebrating the odiferous ramp
Purple rhododendron is the most admired flowering plant in the Southern Appalachians. Ginseng is the most celebrated medicinal plant. And ramps are the most sought-after culinary plant — a fact that has led to its overharvesting in the wild.
Ramp hunting, harvesting, and consumption will commence in March and continue into May. Before long there will be a ramp festival near you — the most famous and long-standing being the one that will be held in Waynesville the first weekend in May at the American Legion Field. This year’s event will mark the 82nd consecutive year that it has been held!
Wild leeks or ramps are classified as members of the onion family and are placed in the same genus (Allium) as wild onions and wild garlic. The name “ramps” is one of the many variants of the English word “ramson,” the common name of the European bear leek (A.ursinum), a broad-leaved species of garlic much cultivated and eaten in salads.
Most ramp fanciers aren’t aware that our native ramp has two taxonomically recognized forms. Some authorities consider these to be no more than varieties of the same species. Others, like B. Eugene Wofford at the University of Tennessee in his Guide to the Vascular Flora of the Blue Ridge (1989), give each form distinct species status.
Wide-leaf ramps (A. tricoccum) have red-tinged leaves over 2 inches wide that have stalked leaf bases, which are pinkish in color. Narrow-leaf ramps (A. burdickii) have leaves not tinged that are less than 2 inches wide with unstalked leaf bases that are whitish in color. Wide-leaf ramps are by far the most common, but both species are found in Western North Carolina.
According to Tim Spira’s Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachians and Piedmont (2010), the plant forms dense colonies in moist, rich soils of undisturbed forest [mostly above 3,000 feet.] The leaves arise from underground bulbs as early as late February and persist for five to six weeks until the canopy trees leaf out. By the time the flowers are produced in summer, the leaves have long since withered and died.
Ramps are often described as “odiferous.” In my opinion this quality is highly exaggerated. Maybe it’s an individual thing. I am, after all, the sort of cook who immediately chops up two or three large onions prior to cooking any meal — if the onions happen to be ramps, why then so much the better.
Let’s close out here with some ramp festival observations by folk historian Martha Ann Williams, a WNC native, in her volume Great Smoky Mountain Folklore (1995). She devotes her closing chapter to “Displays of Culture,” in which she ruminates about such staples as the Cherokee Fall Festival and Dollywood and the annual ramp festivals held throughout the region.
“The Smoky Mountain region is festival crazy,” Williams begins. “Between April and November, there is a festival almost every weekend … Festivals that are built around a food … usually feature foods that are important to the local economy, such as apples, or to tourism, such as trout.
“Noticeable exceptions are the ramp festivals … These wild leeks play almost no role in the local economy; they are seldom sold (except at festivals) or served at commercial establishments. Most people outside the region don’t know what ramps are, and, at least according to local belief, would not like them if they did. In a way, though, this is exactly why they are important. While some foods may be used to market an ethnic or regional group cross-culturally, the foods that are most significant within a culture are those that require unique knowledge to procure, prepare, or consume or that insiders alone have the stomach to eat.
“Ramps are only found above a certain elevation, so that simply locating them takes a specialized knowledge. Most of the lore about ramps, however, deals not with their procurement but with their odor, or rather the odor they produce in human beings who consume them … So why hold a festival purporting to celebrate a wild plant that makes you stink? … Is the festival really about ramps? Well, yes and no [but] ramps offer a humorous theme for the festival; they are treated with mock seriousness in a characteristically deadpan manner … Despite the fact that they make you stink, eating ramps is a manly thing to do. Maybe not caring that you stink is macho. However, the official ramp promoters shy away from any explicit reference to the sexual innuendoes that are at the heart of ramp humor.”
George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees.