The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Ramp Time

By Spike Knuth © 1990
Information Officer
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

Issue: April, 1990

Each spring many residents of the Appalachian Mountain Communities take to the high woodlands in search of a special plant that's often regarded as a spring tonic. April through June is ramp time in Virginia's Southwest Mountains. The ramp (allium tricoccum) is an herb that is classified as a leek - a member of the lily family and cousin to the onion and garlic. It grows in the moist, rich woodlands of the Eastern United States - usually at high altitudes. The early settlers prized ramps and wild onions because they were the first edible greens available after a long winter of eating dried and salted foods.

I had my first taste of ramps about 10 years ago. Someone from the mountains had brought a concoction of potatoes, celery, carrots, onions and eggs all cooked up with a handful of ramps, and given it to Major Billy Windsor, then wildlife manager at Quantico Marine Base. Winsdor gave me a plateful and I was hooked. It was delicious! He also had a plastic bag full of fresh ramps and I was invited to take some home to try for myself. The next day I sliced some up - leaves and bulbs - and fried them with potatoes and eggs. I loved 'em! I was about to let my wife know about my wonderful new gourmet cooking discovery when she hollered down the stairs, "What is that horrible smell?" I guess ramps fall into the "either love 'em or hate 'em category."

The ramp has a flavor that resembles a mixture of garlic and onion, only stronger. It has an odor and taste that is described as "pungent and lasting." In fact, after eating enough of them, a person begins to smell like them - often for days. It seems to come out through the pores of the skin. At least that is what I experienced.

The plants, which are sought after from April to June, have cylindrical bulbs and two or three long, flat succulent leaves, all of which can be used and eaten. Experienced ramp hunters claim that they are better when taken from higher altitudes and that they grow bigger on the sunny sides of the mountains.

Ramps grow to nearly a foot tall by late April. The leaves appear in early spring but disappear by summer. A long, leafless stem grows out and bears several greenish-white flowers at its tip. From these flowers, a pod develops, containing several seeds which ultimately fall to the ground to sprout the following spring. Ramps are not native to the United States and were apparently brought here by early settlers from Europe where it is prized for gourmet cooking (despite what my wife thinks).

Ramps can be eaten raw, fried, boiled, in soups, stews and omelets, minced and added to beans or home fries. Each spring, communities throughout the Appalachian gather to have ramp festivals. Richwood, West Virginia, on the edge of the Monogahela National Forest, headquarters of the National Ramp Association, lays claim to being the ramp capitol of the world. Here the Festival of Ramson is held each spring. Virginia's ramp capitol seems to be Washington/Grayson County. [On the county line.] Each year since 1972, the Mount Rogers Fire Department has held the White Top Mountain Ramp Festival in May. There is plenty of good food (made with ramps, of course), ramp eating contest, mountain music, games and other activities.

An interesting aside is the fact that the Indians call ramps "Checaquo," the same name they used for wild onion. The city of Chicago got its name form being a place where the wild onion grew. While my wife has declared ramps off limits in our household, I still like them enough to be willing to take a chance on smuggling some in for a little taste!

Editor's Note... I have been told that there were often "ramp festivals" in the mountains in days gone by. The most popular form of travel at that time was the railroad. It was easy to tell which passengers on the trains had been to the ramp festivals because they "reeked" of the smell, as though it seeped through their very pores!