Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Tradition of Wild Leeks

Ah, wild leeks. Also known as "Ramps" regionally, they are the wonderful, smelly things. I love them.

Around here, Allium tricoccum are known simply as "leeks". Not to be confused with the leeks you'd buy at the market, which are Allium ampeloprasum var. porrum... an entirely different species! Super exciting trivia-- did you know that Chicago apparently is named after wild leeks? For real.

 This map shows where wild leeks occur, though in my experience it seems that their fame really varies depending on the locality and how much the locals like to eat them. Around here, they can grow in abundance in their favored micro-climates, and some people are really into them (much to the dismay of family, friends, and co-workers!). Locally there is even a festival for leeks. Stinkfest (honestly, this should be an indicator of how far I live from modern entertainment. Not that I mind). Which leads me to the smell.

Oh, yes.
Wild leeks taste like a complex blend between a green onion and garlic. All parts are edible and vary in their strength depending on growing conditions, age, size, and what part of the leek you are eating. They are delightful.
They also really make you smell.

Have you ever scented someone after a lovely, garlic-ridden meal? Ahh, the bouquet.
Sit back and close your eyes. Bring the scentful memory back to your thoughts. Hmm. Lovely, no?

Amplify this by twelve (at least) and you have an idea of what a leek-loving person smells like for days afterward. My father tells stories about how, back in 'his day', classroom sizes were small and child numbers few, and if a kid came in smelling like leeks they got sent right back home again for the day. I don't know if this is true or not, but as a kid it sure did encourage me to eat more leeks. I never got sent home, though.

The Valley. Of the Leeks.
Going to dig leeks has been a family tradition in April since I was a little child-speck of a Jennifer. We go to an area that we call "The Valley of the Leeks". It involves a walk, perhaps three miles one way, that starts on a ridge, goes down into a valley, across a gulley, across a roaring creek that is usually swollen with spring thaw, and up onto another ridge on the other side. Quite an adventure, and never uneventful! On our way in this time, we flushed two ruffed grouse. And once you arrive, you find yourself on a hillside with leeks growing as thick as grass. In the photo to the left you can see- all the greenery is not grass or other plants. They are all leeks. 180° of leeks-- uphill, downhill, sidehill, widehill. There is a Dr. Suess story in here somewhere, but I'm not so skilled as to pull that off.

I digress.

The boys (husband/dad) treading carefully through leeks
Digging wild leeks requires some care and finesse, especially if you are a naturalist at heart like me. When digging leeks, you remove the whole plant; leaves, stem, bulb, and roots. The entire thing goes in your belly, so because of this it's important not to deplete an area of its leeks-- not only would it be irresponsible management of your leek source, but it is ecologically poor form. By harvesting the entire plant, you are removing it entirely... thus, if many are removed, they will not be able to repopulate (or even repopulate to replace the leeks taken). Complicating this, leeks are biennial, meaning that they only flower in their second year. Leeks have actually become endangered in some areas of their native range due to over-harvesting, especially for things like .. yep... local festivals, where they are consumed in great quantities. Still, it is possible to responsibly harvest wild leeks if care and respect are given when doing so (if you cannot harvest wild leeks but live in an area that supports them, apparently you can buy them to grow! Note that they do best when mulched with hardwood leaves). The Valley has enough leeks to support our taking some.

Along with the leeks are other delightful spring plants. I wish I was clever enough to know all of their names, but I do not. Here are a few that I found today, though.

White Hepatica, Anemone acutiloba. I also found blue and pink varieties.

My favorite- Purple Trillium, Trillium erectum. 
We finished gathering leeks just as a spring rain moved in on us, lightly sprinkling. I gathered a few clumps of earth with leeks embedded to take back home with me; since we bought our home and property I have taken small groups of leeks home every year to transplant into my wooded areas in hopes of restoring the leeks that grew there long before my town existed (naturalist's note: please don't transplant things over long distances unless you know that it's safe and legal to do so-- invasive species are bad!). Burdened with many pounds of wet soil and a few of dug leeks, we trekked back out of the woods before it could downpour on us. On the way out, we were delighted to be witness to the thundering gobbles of a pair of wild turkey toms; the typical "gobble-gobble" many of us associate with a puffy Thanksgiving farm bird is much more haunting and wonderful to behold while deep in the wood.

Now I have to look forward to cleaning leeks for many, many hours. Some will be served fresh, while the rest will be frozen to as a far, far more flavorful onion-substitute in my cooking for the next year.

Pardon me, while I stink of leeks.

Leek leaves, with Hepatica flowers peeking up though. Guest appearance by some mottled Trout Lily leaves.


  1. aaah, I remember finding purple trillium as a kid when I'd sneak out to wander in the woods behind my grandmother's. <3

    Sadly...I have never tried leeks! However, I love both garlic and onions, so they sound very tasty. I bet they'd make a fantastic soup.

  2. Here in Switzerland, our forests get flooded with Bärlauch, which translated literally means "bear leeks." I just never made the connection to, well, the onion family. But I sure love that stuff on my salads or pizza or pasta.

  3. I live in Scotland and bear leeks are also known as ramsons and they grow insanely around where I live. We pick the leaves and make garlicy vinegar with them, use them in salads, they're fab for keeping midgies away because the stink hovers for days. Snack on the flowers while we're out on walks... Ramps aren't the same plant but they sound very similar! Yum.

    1. I had a look at Bear Leeks/garlic and indeed it does sound similar! Ah, the pungent odor of a good meal....