Identifying & Sustainably Harvesting Wild Leeks
Wild leeks (Allium tricoccum) aka “ramps” are easiest to find and identify in early spring as they come up before other greens and grasses and are easy to spot on a forest floor of dead brown leaves. The main plant coming up at the same time is trout lily leaves (Erythronium americanum aka adder’s tongue) which are smaller, speckled, succulent, and have yellow flowers. Trout lily is edible, tasting mild and similar to purslane. Trout lily and wild leek will often grow mixed together with trilliums. Wild leek leaves resemble tulip leaves in appearance and size, but taste deliciously of garlic.
Above: Trout Lily | Below: Wild Leek Flower Buds
Some stems and flower stalks are red while others are pure green - both are wild leeks - one just has more anthocyanins which produces red and purple pigments in plants. We harvest both equally.
The accepted sustainable practice in Europe and of the United Plant Savers is to only harvest the leaves, and only one leaf per stalk. The one leaf rule is important as in spring most plants only have two leaves! If you take both leaves, the plant will die. The roots are not dug up because it takes 5-8 years for them to reach maturity from seed and even if some plants are left behind it can take a wild leek patch 30-50 years to recover to where it was before the root harvest. Keep it in mind that most of us are out harvesting wild leeks well before they have had a chance to flower and produce seeds.
Even if harvesters are practicing the 10-20% rule of only taking a percentage of a patch, it will still take that long for the bit you harvested to recover and, unless you are legally on private land, you cannot guarantee other foragers are not harvesting from the same patch, all taking your own 20% until there is nothing left. If we all harvest the leaves in the wild, the patches will always be there.
For those who love the roots and don’t want to give up eating them, they can be cultivated! You can purchase seeds or transplants from local businesses and create your own wild leek patch. Seeds need to be planted in the fall just like most native plants. Plant before the first frost. They need to go through a winter to germinate. Roots can be transplanted to a garden in the fall or early spring (in the Ottawa Valley that means before June). I suggest staggering seed planting at 2-4 year intervals so when you harvest a mature patch, you always have new patches growing to replace it.
Storing & Preserving
We dry the leaves in a dehydrator to use them as a cooking herb. We store the dried, crushed leaves in glass canning jars. Smells and tastes just like garlic and can be used to season anything you’d use garlic powder, onion powder, or chives for. Air drying the leaves results in a slimy mess so if you don’t have a dehydrator you can dry them in your over on its lowest heat with the door jammed open with a wooden spoon.
The leaves store fresh in the fridge for up to a week wrapped in a damp but not wet towel inside a plastic bag or a large airtight food storage container. We chop them up and put them in omelettes, quiches, salads, and anything you would use chives or green onions in. They taste just as good raw as cooked and can be used to give anything a garlic flavour well before the garlic in our gardens is ready.can be used fresh just like leeks or green onions from the grocery store. They are often canned and pickled in our local area as “wild garlic”. Whole plants can be brushed with oil, sprinkled with a little salt and grilled as a side vegetable with a meal.
I like to make ramp leaf puree or pesto and toss any meat, vegetable, and noodle in it! The pesto can be frozen for up to six months. It can also be canned in a pressure cooker --it will lose some colour and nutritional value, but it will last for a year.