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Ramped up for ramps

Ramps carpeting the forest floor. Dan Wilcox photo

Last Sunday was a beautiful spring day. Hiking in to do some trout fishing was like a walk in the park. We didn't have to battle the tall stinging nettles, reed canary grass and water parsnip of summer.

Spring beauties, rue anemones, Dutchman's breeches, trout lilies and bloodroot were blooming in the woods. The air was fresh with the smells of the river, flowering wild plum and cherry trees.

A little farther along the path, a distinct garlic odor reminded me that this is the season for ramps. Ramps, or wild leek (Alium tricoccum), are spring ephemerals in the onion family. They grow in moist woods often under maples. They have two to three lance-shaped green leaves that grow up out of an egg-shaped bulb.

Ramps grow from Quebec and the Maritime Provinces in Canada, in New England and south through the Appalachians into Georgia and Tennessee and west into Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Ramps were a staple food for Native Americans, who also used them to treat insect stings with juice from the crushed bulbs.

John Mariani, author of The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, explains that the word "ramps" comes from "rams" or "ramson," an Elizabethan English word for wild garlic. The word was brought to the southern Appalachian Mountains by English immigrants.

Appalachian mountaineers are wildly enthusiastic about ramps. Many mountain towns from Pennsylvania to Georgia have springtime ramps festivals and ramps dinners for community fundraisers.

Chefs and wild food enthusiasts across the country enjoy the flavor of this first wild green vegetable available in spring. Ramps can be boiled, sautéed, pickled and used in any dish that calls for onions, leeks or garlic. They make great French onion soup. The leaves have milder flavor than the bulbs. Chopped ramp leaves go well with spring salads along with asparagus and spinach.

Ramps aren't available for long in the spring, but you can chop and freeze them for cooking later. The chopped leaves can be air dried and frozen for future use as seasoning.

A word of caution: Ramps are also known as the "King of Stink." Ingesting a lot of fresh ramps will give you a garlic odor that will keep vampires away. A sprig of ramps goes well in a Stinkin' Bloody Mary however.

We enjoyed a fine day of fishing. The trout were furiously feeding on a mid-day caddis hatch and were vulnerable to a small elk-hair caddis emerger fly.

We snacked on fresh ramps and look forward to other trout-fishing bonus wild food. The fiddlehead ferns and morels will be coming up soon.

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