The name ramps (usually plural) is one of the many dialectical variants of the English word ramson, a common name of the European bear leek (Allium ursinum), a broad-leaved species of garlic much cultivated and eaten in salads, a plant related to our American species. The Anglo-Saxon ancestor of ramson was hramsa, and ramson was the Old English plural, the –n being retained as in oxen, children, etc. The word is cognate with rams, in German, Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian, and with the Greek kromuon, garlic [...]. Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (1904) lists as variants rame, ramp, ramps, rams, ramsden, ramsey, ramsh, ramsies, ramsy, rommy, and roms, mostly from northern England and Scotland.
The ramp has broad, smooth, light green leaves, often with deep purple or burgundy tints on the lower stems, and a scallion-like stalk and bulb. Both the white lower leaf stalks and the broad green leaves are edible. The flower stalk only appears after the leaves have died back, unlike the similar Allium ursinum, in which leaves and flowers can be seen at the same time. Ramps grow in close groups strongly rooted just beneath the surface of the soil.
Allium tricoccum was first named in 1789 by the Scottish botanist William Aiton, in Hortus Kewensis, a catalog of plants cultivated in the Kew botanic garden. The species had been introduced to Britain in 1770. The specific epithet tricoccum refers to the possession of three seeds.
This treatment is followed by other sources (e.g. the Flora of North America), although the two taxa are sometimes treated as two species, Allium tricoccum and Allium burdickii.A. tricoccum var. burdickii was first described by Clarence Hanes in 1953; the epithet burdickii is in honor of Dr. J.H. Burdick who pointed out differences between what were then regarded as different "races" in letters to Asa Gray. The variety was raised to a full species by Almut Jones in 1979.
The two are distinguished by several features:
A. tricoccum var. tricoccum is generally larger than A. tricoccum var. burdickii: the bulbs are larger; the leaves are usually 5–9 cm (2.0–3.5 in) wide rather than 2–4 cm (0.8–1.6 in) wide; the umbels typically have 30–50 flowers rather than 12–18.
The leaf stalks (petioles) and leaf sheaths are usually purplish in var. tricoccum and white in var. burdickii.
The leaves of var. burdickii have less distinct stalks than those of var. tricoccum.
Allium tricoccum growing in its natural woodland environment.
In Canada, ramps are considered rare delicacies. Since the growth of ramps is not as widespread as in Appalachia and because of destructive human practices, ramps are a threatened species in Quebec. Allium tricoccum is a protected species under Quebec legislation. A person may have ramps in his or her possession outside the plant's natural environment, or may harvest it for the purposes of personal consumption in an annual quantity not exceeding 200 grams of any of its parts or a maximum of 50 bulbs or 50 plants, provided those activities do not take place in a park within the meaning of the National Parks Act. The protected status also prohibits any commercial transactions of ramps; this prevents restaurants from serving ramps as is done in the United States. Failure to comply with these laws is punishable by a fine. However, the law does not always stop poachers, who find a ready market across the border in Ontario (especially in the Ottawa area), where ramps may be legally harvested and sold.
Ramps are considered a species of "special concern" for conservation in Maine, Rhode Island, and Tennessee. They are also considered "commercially exploited" in Tennessee. Ramp festivals may encourage harvest in unsustainable quantities.
Culinary uses and festivals
Closeup of an Allium tricoccum bulb.
Deep fried ramps sign at Mason-Dixon Ramp Fest in Mt. Morris, Pennsylvania in 2010
The plant's flavor, a combination of onions and strong garlic, or "fried green onions with a dash of funky feet" in the words of food writer Jane Snow, is adaptable to numerous cooking styles. In central Appalachia, ramps are most commonly fried with potatoes in bacon fat or scrambled with eggs and served with bacon, pinto beans and cornbread. Ramps can also be pickled or used in soups and other foods in place of onions and garlic.
The community of Richwood, West Virginia, holds the annual "Feast of the Ramson" in April. Sponsored by the National Ramp Association, the "Ramp Feed" (as it is locally known) brings thousands of ramp aficionados from considerable distances to sample foods featuring the plant. During the ramp season (late winter through early spring), restaurants in the town serve a wide variety of foods containing ramps.
The city of Elkins, West Virginia, hosts the "Ramps and Rails Festival" during the last weekend in April of each year. This festival features a cook-off and ramp-eating contests, and is attended by several hundred people each year.
The community of Flag Pond, Tennessee, hosts its annual Ramp Festival on the second Saturday each May. The festival features a wide variety of ramp-inspired foods, and includes music from an assortment of Appalachian groups. Hundreds of people attend the festival each year.
Mason Dixon Park, located on the border of West Virginia and Pennsylvania near Interstate 79, hosts the annual "Mason-Dixon Ramp Festival", typically on the third weekend in April. This festival is unique in having a "ramp rally", where ramp lovers pulling Serro Scotty campers gather to celebrate both ramps and the Scotty, a travel trailer which was manufactured in this area from 1957 until the local factory burned down in 1997.
In Bradford, Pennsylvania, on the first Saturday in May, an annual event called "Stinkfest" is held. Local food vendors, providing Chinese, German, Italian, and traditional American cuisine, offer their dishes with leeks included. Highlights include the dip tasting contest, the outhouse races (where teams from local business build rolling outhouses and power them down the main thoroughfare), and appearances by local musical groups.
History and folklore
The region of the city of Chicago took its name from a dense growth of ramps near Lake Michigan in Illinois Country in the 17th century. The local river was referred to by the plant's indigenous name according to explorer Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, and by his comrade, the naturalist and diarist Henri Joutel. The plant, called shikaakwa (chicagou) in the language of local native tribes, was once thought to be Allium cernuum, the nodding wild onion, but research in the early 1990s showed the correct plant was the ramp.
The ramp has strong associations with the folklore of the central Appalachian Mountains. Fascination and humor have fixated on the plant's extreme pungency. Jim Comstock, editor and co-owner of the Richwood News Leader, introduced ramp juice into the printer's ink of one issue as a practical joke, invoking the ire of the U.S. Postmaster General.
The mountain folk of Appalachia have long celebrated spring with the arrival of the ramp, believing it to have great power as a tonic to ward off many ailments of winter. Indeed, ramp's vitamin and mineral content did bolster the health of people who went without many green vegetables during the winter.
A ramp bath was featured in the 1974 film Where the Lilies Bloom about life in North Carolina. In the 1987 John Sayles film Matewan, an Appalachian woman in a camp of West Virginia union miners gives a hare to an Italian immigrant woman, along with some ramps "to flavor the stew". The Italian woman smells the ramps and exclaims "aglio!" (garlic!).
^Miller, Tom D. (5 October 2012). "Jim Comstock". West Virginia Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17 February 2013.
^"Ramps in the Ink". Goldenseal20: 23. Winter 1994. Comstock had been inspired by the scratch-and-sniff advertising for perfume and coffee in several local papers. The issue in question announced the Richwood Ramp Supper by lacing the printer's ink for the spring issue with ramp juice. According to Comstock, "We got a reprimand from the Postmaster General ... And we are probably the only paper in the United States that's under oath to the federal government not to smell bad".