News Release

How Many Ramps Do You Need for a Festival?

July 14, 2003

Asheville, NC — For the past three years, Jim Chamberlain, research forest products technologist for the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station unit in Blacksburg, VA, has spent most of April and May in the mountains of western North Carolina digging ramps with the people who organize the annual festivals to celebrate the coming of spring.

"We really don’t know that much about the social and economic dynamics that affect the collection of ramps," said Chamberlain, in an interview at the Forest Products Conservation unit in Blacksburg, VA. "By working directly with collectors, we hope to learn how to manage our national forests so that people can continue to dig ramps while sustaining plant populations."

Ramps (Allium tricocum), also known as wild leeks, have been described as having a flavor that falls between garlic and scallions. While the taste is sweet, the smell of ramps—or of those who eat them—has been known to clear a room. Native to the forests of eastern North America, ramps emerge in moist, shady areas of Southern Appalachian forests in late March and early April. The plants send up a circle of smooth, broad leaves that die back as spring progresses. People collect both the leaves and the spicy bulb as a spring tonic.

Native Americans probably taught the early settlers to hunt for ramps for medicinal purposes, and as the first fresh vegetable to emerge in the spring. The best way to eat ramps is freshly picked, then fried with potatoes or eggs, or cooked up as a "mess" with freshly caught trout. Gatherings with cooking and music 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.

 [ Men sorting and cleaning ramps ]
One volunteer fire department in North Carolina, generates more than 30 percent of its annual budget from a one-day ramp supper. In 2001, more than 2000 pounds of ramps were harvested to supply annual ramp festivals. Though some folks cook the leaves, in general they are discarded.

Three years ago, Chamberlain contacted members of the 10 major festivals in the region and arranged to go out collecting with them the next year. Chamberlain tracks 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.

"After 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," said Chamberlain. "Old timers think there is a relationship—big leaf, big bulb—I’m trying to determine if that is true."

Since the data he collects is tied to specific collection areas, Chamberlain can compare ramp populations in different watersheds, or determine if the collecting methods of a group affect the size of plants harvested. Chamberlain is also interested in whether the size of the plants harvested is changing due to pressure on ramp populations from collecting.

Ramps flower in June or July, with the seeds taking a year or longer to germinate. Three to five years of growth are needed to produce a large bulb. Fortunately, ramps can also reproduce from rhizomes, rootlike stems that run underground. Bulbs will grow from rhizomes; a bulb can also split into two new bulbs. Ramp collectors typically dig clumps out of large patches of plants, leaving individuals in the resulting gaps to form new patches for the next year.

"Old timers say that if you cut the rhizomes off and put them back in the ground, they will reproduce," said Chamberlain. "After this year’s harvest, we took the roots and rhizomes back to some patches to see if they would produce bulbs next year. If this doesn’t work, we will try leaving different amounts of the bulb next year. If one of these methods results in new plants, we can start working with the groups to regenerate the patches as they harvest."

Chamberlain's data shows that the major ramp festivals are using a total 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, which shifted more demand onto national forest lands.

As much of the ramp collection takes place on national forest land, Chamberlain works closely with Gary Kauffman, forest botanical specialist for the National Forests in North Carolina, and is also collaborating with forest ecologist David White, who is looking at the ecological impacts of collecting on ramp populations. Since 1999, White and other researchers at the SRS Endangered, Threatened, and Sensitive Wildlife and Plants unit in Clemson, SC, have been monitoring 21 plots in the Nantahala National Forest to track changes in ramp density and cover due to collecting activities.

"We just don’t know if the current levels of ramp harvesting are sustainable or not," said Chamberlain. "We have heard that some of the ramp populations are in decline, but we cannot know this 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."

For more information: Jim Chamberlain at (540-231-3611) or jachambe@vt.edu

For more information on Chamberlain’s ramps project, see http://www.srs4702.forprod.vt.edu/unit/ramps.htm

For more on the Clemson project: http://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/4201/David_files/ramps.htm