My favorite TV meteorologist used to say that spring begins down in the Florida Everglades in early February and travels northward toward the Pennsylvania Wilds at a clip of about 30 miles a day.
And here at long last, spring has sprung!
Much like the opening day of trout season, the return of the red-winged blackbird and the switch to Daylight Saving Time, the emergence of wild leeks in these parts is among the true harbingers of spring.
Here in the Wilds most people call them leeks. Others call them ramps.
Whatever. Leeks. Ramps. Two different names, same great taste.
At our Forest County camp, no trout season opening day was complete without a mess of delicious leeks to go with our freshly caught browns, brookies and rainbows.
Depending on how long winter lingers, wild leeks begin to pop up across the Wilds in mid-April, but they are usually long gone by Memorial Day as their vibrant green leaves turn yellow and wither. Their stay is short-lived. Too short. However, they can be preserved, pickled and dried.
Through the years I have found that this pungent, leafy-green, white-bulbed forest delicacy means different things to people. For some, leek season signals winter’s end. For others, it signals the beginning of spring, the “rebirth.” For others, it heralds the opening of trout season — and yet for others, there is medicinal value.
The ‘old timers’ I knew as a boy in Potter County insisted leeks were the perfect spring tonic, which, they said, “cleansed the blood and kept colds and flu away.” They absolutely swore by it, as did Chief Cornplanter and the Native American tribes who welcomed the spring arrival of wild leeks after suffering through brutal winters.
But perhaps they are not for everybody. (Did we mention ‘pungent’?) The intense flavor is somewhere between garlic, onion and scallion. If you think garlic is strong, help yourself to a raw wild leek and you will know instantly that this is how Mother Nature defines “social distancing.”
Anyway, digging leeks is my ultimate rite of spring, and I take to the mountainside with a camp shovel, trowel and bucket. Through the years, I have come to know quite a few choice spots off the beaten track from the Allegheny National Forest & Surrounds landscape, deep into the Dark Skies region of the PA Wilds.
The first lesson I learned was that you simply do not just go out and “pick” leeks; you dig leeks, or try to. This task is not for the faint-hearted. There’s work involved, and you will spend a lot of time on your hands and knees – but at mealtime, it is well worth it.
A close relative of the onion and garlic family, we find them clustered in large patches, characterized by two slender, deep-green leaves. Well-anchored in the ground are the delectable pearly bulbs – the divine goodness. Often the plants are partially covered by last autumn’s leaves, located in and around rocks and tree roots, and I confess to have broken a couple of trowels trying to get them out.
Nothing about a wild leek goes to waste. Both the tender leaves and the pearly bulbs are edible. The late Naturalist Euell Gibbons, in his popular field guide Stalking the Wild Asparagus wrote that wild leeks are “the sweetest and the best of the wild onions.”
But wait. This wonderful woodland treat is trending.
At CJ Spirits in Kane, they have been producing their craft-distilled Pennsylvania Wild Leek Vodka for several years, which coincides with CJ’s annual Leek Fest celebration on tap for late April. Owners/operators Sam Cummings, Jr. and Tom Jones take their corn-based vodka and infuse the leek flavor into it with a gin basket packed full of leeks, which allows the vapor to pass through it, without the flavor becoming “overpowering.”
At Kane’s popular uptown Table 105 and over at the Corner Bistro & Pizza in Smethport, owner Riki Tanaka says wild leek dishes abound on the menus while in season. “Some of the dishes we prepare are dips, deep fried nest of leeks, ham potato leek pizza, leek soup, leek Philly cheesesteaks, leek grilled cheese, leek burgers, and trout with leeks,” says Riki. “Basically, anytime an onion or shallot is used, we can replace them with wild leeks. We purchase our wild leeks through locals who sell by the pound.”
As wild leeks continue to grow in popularity, the problem of “over-harvesting” sometimes results in whole colonies of wild leeks being wiped-out by people taking more than they consume. I have seen this happen in the Allegheny National Forest where, one season, you’ll find a quarter-acre of leeks and then, the next season, there are nothing but shovel holes.
Trying to better understand the perspectives of wild leek/ramp harvesters, distributors and consumers on topics that include ramp management, Cathryn Pugh of Wyalusing has some definite thoughts about overharvesting.
She is the administrator of the Wild Ramps and Leeks of Pennsylvania Facebook page, a site dedicated to bringing together ramp growers, diggers, and enthusiasts to provide a space for ramp-related discussion, ramp news and updates on the ramp season throughout the state. She is currently working on her master’s degree at Penn State in the Forest Resources Program. Her thesis focuses on the cultural and economic importance of ramps to Pennsylvanians.
“It’s easy to imagine why a patch could be overharvested if ramps/leeks are seen as a ‘bottomless’ resource,” says Cathryn. “Ramps are a slow-growing, perennial plant that takes 5-7 years to reach reproductive maturity, from seed, to a flowering individual.”
She says over-harvesting happens when more plants are removed from a population/patch than can be replaced the following season.
“By educating more people about ramp stewardship and sustainable harvesting, more people will likely adjust their thinking and practices to ensure that they can collect ramps into the future,” explains Cathryn. “Sustainability either means collecting only the number of ramps that can be replaced in the following season or collecting fewer ramps to ensure the population is stable or growing.” Cathryn is currently looking for ramp harvesters, distributors, and consumers to take her Penn State survey or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another important tip: you do not want to dig on private property without permission. People are possessive about their leek patches. As for digging on lands governed by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), they say, “Edible wild plants or plant parts may be gathered without authorization if they are gathered for one’s own personal or family consumption on DCNR managed lands. Commercial harvesting is not permitted.”
In the Allegheny National Forest there are no specific laws or regulations as long as you dig leeks for your personal use only. Digging leeks for commercial sale is prohibited.
That being said, it is well known that ham and leek dinners have generated a lot of money for church and civic groups all across the Wilds for many generations. Sadly, many ham and leek fundraising events have temporarily ceased operations due to the pandemic, but they vow to return when restrictions are lifted in full.
A word of caution for those new to the world of searching for wild leeks/ramps. As with foraging for any wild plant, you will be wise to do your homework and know what exactly you are looking for!
Wild leeks/ramps can sometimes be confused with the toxic lily of the valley. Although fairly similar in appearance, smell is the easiest way of telling the difference. Tear the leaf and sniff. If it smells like onion or garlic, it’s a wild leek/ramp. If not, it may be lily of the valley. Leaving nothing to chance, remember the foragers’ credo: When in doubt, don’t dig it out!
In the meantime, go forth, have fun, dig wisely, follow low impact and Leave No Trace Seven Principles and always replace the soil. This is the perfect time of the year to search out and enjoy one of the Pennsylvania Wilds’ most scrumptious woodland treats!