Ramps and Reverse Foraging

My recent Serious Eats feature (which yay, I’m so excited about) is an inside look at ramp dinners, but my initial interest in ramps came about from the attraction of finding and getting them. Looking for ramps in the woods in the spring is a bit of a treasure hunt in nature. A person heading out foraging and coming back empty-handed at least got outside for a while and saw many non-ramp examples of wildlife, and that was pleasing to me.

I think that’s part of why ramps have become so trendy the past decade; even if you don’t get the full-on foraging experience from buying them at a fancy farmers’ market, just having them on your plate connects you to the larger romance of their story.

But this year I learned more about how our love for ramps is harming them. Nature can’t keep up with the demand, and ramps—while hearty—are very slow to grow.

Ramps were my introduction to foraging, but I like to get out and scrabble around for all kinds of greens, fruits, forest herbs, and mushrooms. Oftentimes I am not very successful, but the success is ultimately about reconnecting with my role in the immediate ecosystem where I happen to be at the time. Still, the lure of going into the woods is not nearly as potent without the potential reward of encountering something delicious to eat.

So I decided to be a little bit more proactive in making sure my actions help preserve the forest habitat I love so much—without it, there is no foraging. I think of it as reverse foraging. It may be just a drop in the bucket in the face of everything our modern lives do to alter the landscape we live on, but I think intentions go a long way for one’s spiritual well-being.

  • Planting ramp bulbs in areas in decimated ramp patches, or, better yet, collecting ramp seeds in the early fall and planting them in the woods (which is actually very easy).

  • Pulling up invasive garlic mustard and properly disposing of it so it does not spread. This one in particular is like beating back waves, because garlic mustard is very tenacious. But I saw some growing in my favorite ramp patch, and I was like, “that’s it, man! This is WAR!” Also, pulling up garlic mustard can be cathartic if you are in a foul mood.

  • Following the basic principles of courtesy by not foraging for more than the land can easily recover from.

  • Getting friends excited about the wonders of what grows right where you live. Even if someone is not going to go out and collect shagbark hickory nuts, just knowing they exist increases the value humans place on those trees, and, by extension, the biodiversity of their surroundings.

There’s a school of thought that the changes humans make to our natural systems is, in its own way, natural (e.g. invasive species accidentally coming over to new landmasses on ships, or people intentionally introducing new species). I get thisthere were no apples in North America prior to the arrival of the Europeans, and goddamn do I love apples—but I think it’s fine to make judgments on a case-by-case basis, rather than cop out and say “fuck it, we’re screwed, but I’ll be dead by the time it matters.” Just today I was thinking there could be a year when I have grandkids and I’d tell them, “I remember when there were bats in North America,” or “There used to be these wild onions in the woods called ramps, and I liked to dig them up and cook them.” What a dreary future to have in store. I don’t want us to get there without a fight.