If you know anything about wild edible plants, chances are you know about wild leeks. Also known as ramps, the wild leek (Allium tricoccum) is a rock star among wild foods. Festivals celebrate its distinctive flavor, and it is served at the world’s finest restaurants.
In early spring, wild leeks grow pairs or trios of smooth, glossy-green, parallel-veined leaves. But the best field mark for telling wild leeks from other plants is their scent, perhaps best described as a cross between garlic and onion. Despite their ready identification, it can take time to find wild leeks in the Northeast.
First, wild leeks live invisible, underground lives for much of the growing season. They are spring ephemerals – plants that grow for a few short weeks in the spring sunlight that reaches the forest floor before the canopy leafs out. Second, wild leeks are picky about their habitat. They like rich, well-drained but moist soils. In the Northeast, this means that they are often restricted to calcium-rich rock outcroppings that run adjacent to brooks or streams. Finally, wild leeks are slow to reproduce and are susceptible to overharvest. Most foragers harvest wild leeks by the shovelful, unearthing whole clumps of leeks right down to the roots and then discarding everything but the bulbs. This kind of harvesting is one of the reasons that wild leek has been designated a species of special concern in places like Maine, Rhode Island, and Quebec.
Wild leeks can be harvested sustainably. People have done so for thousands of years. But care must be taken so that future foragers can continue that long tradition. Harvest your own wild leeks rather than buying them from a restaurant or at a festival, where sustainable practices cannot be ensured. Gather only as many leeks as you can use in a few days. There is no reason to discard the leaves. They are as flavorful as the bulbs. Wild leeks grow in tangled clumps. Don’t collect all your wild leeks from one of them. Instead, disperse your harvest throughout the patch and leave about one-third of the plants in any one clump.
Some wild-food authors suggest leaving the fibrous root crown in the ground to begin new growth the next season. This takes time and a bit of practice. The soil in the clump must be lifted and loosened. Then, a sharp knife can be used to cut the bulbs from the root, or a finger can be worked down around the bulb to snap it from the root crown.
If you can find them, wild leeks can be harvested all year. Though flavor does decline later in the season, bulbs are bigger, so fewer need to be harvested for a meal. Also, the seeds can be sown in the soil that is disturbed as the bulbs are collected.
The reputation of wild leeks among gourmets is well deserved. Wild leeks are both richer in taste than onion and milder than garlic. I prefer simple meals that allow me to savor their flavor. For example, I like to sauté them in butter and serve them with eggs or in soup.
Wild leek patches are magical places in spring, and one of my favorite memories is of seeing my children walk through my favorite patch with looks of wonder on their faces. With careful harvesting, it is a place that they will be able to share with their own children someday.
Wild Leek Omelet
12 wild leeks
2 Tbs butter
¼ cup of hard, sharp cheese like Parmesan or Gruyère (optional)
Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Thoroughly clean the wild leeks. (The bulbs are covered with a sheath-like membrane that can be removed during cleaning.) Finely chop the leaves and bulbs of the wild leeks, discarding the root crown. Sauté the wild leeks until the chopped bulbs have softened and become translucent (about five minutes). Beat eggs separately and pour over wild leeks. Add cheese and salt to taste. Flip when edges dry. Serve hot.