Ramps: In Abundance or In Trouble?

Eleven years of monitoring ramps populations

Southern Research Station (SRS) research plant ecologist Joan Walker has been monitoring populations of ramps (Allium tricoccum) in the mountain coves of western North Carolina since 2000. Also referred to as wild leeks, ramsons, or wood garlic, ramps are among the first ephemeral greens to emerge during the spring months of March and April.  Once they emerge, leaves will persist for just a few weeks, then quickly wilt and die back.

After a hard winter in the mountains with food stores running low, you can just imagine what a treat these fresh “greens” would have been to both Native Americans and settlers living throughout the region in years past. With their electric green leaves, plump, white bulb and distinct odor — think freshly peeled onion overcome by just-minced garlic — ramps are easy to distinguish from other early arrivers.  Today, locals still harvest ramps for food, medicinal preparations, and to sell at markets and spring festivals. During April and May you’re apt to see ramps on the menus of fine restaurants across the East.

Our National Forest System is responsible for maintaining biological diversity in order to sustain the valuable ecosystem services we all need, including clean air and water, healthy soil, abundant wood, recreational opportunities and other commodities that include herbs and edible plants. In the Southern Appalachians, many of the prime sites for harvesting ramps are within national forest boundaries.

During the mid-1990s, concern was raised about overharvesting ramps in Canada (their northern range), where theyve since been designated a vulnerable species and are no longer available for commercial sale. Concerns about harvesting effects in the southern range (northern Georgia and Alabama and western North Carolina) prompted Walker’s monitoring study, which investigates the distribution and size of ramps populations in two areas of the Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina. Despite the popularity of these plants, relatively little is known about the abundance, density, and distribution of ramps in this area. The goal of the monitoring project is to track these ramps populations over time and determine whether they’ve been adversely affected by local harvesting, all in the interest of conserving this important species for future generations.

The monitoring study consists of 25 plots distributed between 3500 feet to just over 5000 feet in elevation. Every year Walker and biological science technician Bryan Mudder  measure the area covered by ramps, the density of stems present, and soil disturbance to track the abundance of ramps in coves through time and to work out difficult-to-answer questions about the effects of harvesting and other disturbances. For 11 years now, these same plots and transects have been carefully measured. Click here to learn more and to see results from inventory plots.

In the Southern Appalachians, National Forest policies concerning the harvest of ramps have not changed substantially in the last 5 to 10 years.  Results from Walkers research suggest that it may be time to critically examine the current harvest policy and perhaps take corrective measures, especially as forests are increasingly stressed by human and natural pressures.


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