Are Ramp Festivals Sustainable?
May 17, 2004
Asheville, NC — For the past four years, Jim Chamberlain, research forest products technologist for the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) unit in Blacksburg, VA, has driven down to the mountains of western North Carolina to dig ramps with the festivals that are a springtime tradition in the Southern Appalachians.
ÂWe don't really know that much about the social and economic dynamics that affect collecting for these festivals,Â says Chamberlain. ÂBy working directly with collectors, we hope to learn more how we can work together to ensure sustainable populations of these plants on national forest and private lands.Â
Ramps are an acquired taste: the flavor has been described as similar to leeks, scallions or garlic. While people may not agree on the exact flavor, everyone agrees that partaking of ramps is a strong experience. The mere scent of those who have recently eaten them has been known to clear a room, and children who have eaten them are routinely made to sit in the hall at school.
People collect both the leaves and the spicy bulb as a spring tonic, a tradition that the early settlers may have learned from the Indians. Most people eat ramps freshly picked, fried with potatoes or eggs-or they cook up a ÂmessÂ with freshly caught trout and fatback. Gatherings with cooking and music have naturally formed around the spring collection of ramps. Over the last few decades, these festivals have evolved into a major funding source for rural fire departments, rescue squads, 4H clubs, and other community organizations.
In 1999, Chamberlain started contacting the major festivals in the Southern Appalachian region and began digging with the American Legion in Waynesville, NC, and with the Cosby, TN, Ruritan Club in 2000. Chamberlain keeps track of the total weight and numbers of ramps collected for each festival. He has found that the major groups use 500 to 600 pounds of ramps for an annual festival, with between 40 and 80 bulbs making up a pound.
ÂAfter weighing and counting the harvest, I examine some of the ramps to determine whether there is a relationship between the width of the leaves and the diameter of the bulb,Â said Chamberlain. ÂOld timers think there is a relationshipÂbig leaf, big bulb. I'm trying to determine if that is true. If it is, we will have a way to estimate bulb size in the field without pulling up the plant.Â Chamberlain's data is tied to specific collection areas, enabling him to compare ramp populations in different watersheds, or to determine if a particular collection method affects the size of the plants or populations available the next year.
Jim Chamberlain (blue) measures ramps.
Ramps emerge from the moist, shady floors of Southern Appalachian forests in late March and early April. The plants send up a circle of smooth, broad leaves that die back in early summer, leaving the plant virtually invisible. Ramps flower in June or July: the few seeds produced take a year or longer to germinate, and three to five years to grow into a large bulb. Fortunately, ramps also reproduce from rhizomes, the rootlike stems that run underground. Bulbs can also split, producing two individual plants. Ramp collectors typically dig clumps out of large patches of plants, leaving individuals in the resulting gaps to form new patches for the following year.
ÂOld timers say that if you cut the rhizomes off and put them back in the ground, they will reproduce,Â said Chamberlain. ÂAfter last year's harvest with the Waynesville group, we replanted some of the roots and rhizomes to see if they would produce bulbs the next year. After one year in the ground, some of the rhizomes I checked were dead, and I did not find any new bulbs. This year, we will try leaving different portions of the bulb itself. If any of these methods results in new plants, we can start working with other groups to regenerate the patches as they harvest.Â
Chamberlain's data shows that the major ramp festivals use a total of about 3200 pounds of ramps each spring. This figure does not include the plants collected for roadside stands, restaurants and personal use. In spring 2002, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park banned the collection of ramps after a five-year study indicated a decline in ramp populations in the Park. This shifted more demand onto national forest lands.
Replanting bulbs in a test plot. Photo: Z. Hoyle
While the Waynesville group digs on Haywood County land, most of the other ramp festivals collect on National Forest land. Chamberlain works closely with research plant ecologist Joan Walker and forest ecologist David White from the SRS unit in Clemson, SC, who are monitoring 21 plots in the Nantahala National Forest to track changes in ramp density and cover due to collecting activities. All three researchers also work with Gary Kauffman, forest botanical specialist for the National Forests in North Carolina, who also monitors the status of ramps and other popularly collected plants.
ÂWe don't know if the current levels of ramp harvesting are sustainable or not,Â said Chamberlain. ÂWe have heard that some of the ramp populations are in decline, but we can't determine if this is true without monitoring populations and harvests over several years. Since most of these groups are collecting from national forest lands, we need to start looking at how to include traditional collectors in developing guidance on ramps for forest management plans. Many of the groups I dig with are very interested in working with the Forest Service on sustainable management.Â
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For more information: Jim Chamberlain at (540-231-3611) or email@example.com
For more information about sustainability and the impact of digging ramps on national forest lands: Joan Walker (864-656-4822) or firstname.lastname@example.org
For more on the Clemson project: http://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/4201/David_files/ramps.htm