Awe, the smell of ramps is in the air. The ramp is what some would say a little bit on the odorous side. Let’s just say if you are going on a first date it might not be a good idea to eat ramps the day before. Richwood has been called the ramp capitol of the world and that’s where I was born. In a little old logging town, the ramp gets all the attention from locals and others this time of year.
A ramp (Allium tricoccum) is actually a wild leek with edible leaves and roots. They are native to the deciduous forests of eastern North America. These plants are the first green color in the Appalachian woodlands which is a sure sign spring is here. Ramps normally appear in late March and early April in cool, shady areas with damp soil. The plants hang around until the leaves on the trees come out and drown out the sunlight reaching the forest floor.
The leaves on a ramp have deep maroon streak markings at the base and along the parallel veins. There are two broad leaves, 2 inches wide and over 6 inches long, per each bulb. Lilies also have veins that run in parallel orderly rows. Like the commercial varieties of garlic and onions, ramps are lilies. Lilies have flowers in either 3 or 6 petals, and grow from large underground bulbs.
After the sunlight is shaded out by the forest canopy, the ramp’s leaves wither and die. Only a single bud is left on a stalk. This bud opens in June or July and forms a cluster of white florets. The flowers are a quarter-inch in size and contain a three-lobed seed capsule and three petals, such making it a lily. Ramps reproduce by bulb offsets and seeds. Large colonies can blanket an entire hillside.
The name “ramp” comes from the British Isles, where a related plant grows wild. The early settlers first called them by the folk name “ramsen”, which is the plural form of an Old English word for wild garlic. Over the years Appalachia folks shortened the word to just plain “ramp”. Also, they appear during the zodiac sign of Aries the ram and the word ramp means the son of ram.
Native Americans would look forward to spring because the ramp provided food and spices after a long winter. They believed in them as spring tonic that cleansed the blood. Modern science has confirmed this because ramps contain vitamin C and combat hypertension. Ramps also increase the production of high density lipoproteins, which in turn are believed to combat heart disease by reducing blood serum levels of cholesterol.
Ramps can be cooked several different ways, but the most common way is to fry them with potatoes in a skillet. Serve them with bacon and eggs for a tasty dinner. Some say they taste like a cross between an onion and garlic. The only problem for some people is that the odor will come out of the skin pores for a few days after eating them. So, if you have a co-worker or boss that you don’t get along with; eat a good mess of ramps on Sunday.
I have found ramps in West Virginia in Braxton, Nicholas, Webster, Greenbrier, Randolph, Pocahontas, Pendleton, Tucker, and Grant counties. Most native West Virginians have there own particular locations they visit each year to collect these stinky yet tasty mountain treats, but ramps grow in abundance wherever they are found.
Ramp fests can be found all over the state and they’ve become a West Virginia tradition each spring. This years Feast of the Ramson in Richwood will be the 80th gathering and takes place on April 21. It’s the oldest on-going ramp festival in West Virginia and the entire USA. So, don’t worry about smelling a little bit and head on out to one of the many ramp fests around the state or you could always just dig your own.