Blame Martha. Since the early 1990s, when Martha Stewart Living Magazine published a recipe for ramps, the onion-like bulbs have gone from a rite of spring in Southern mountain culture to a compulsory purchase for those buying their way towards a foodie merit badge. Ramps taste sweet, almost like spring onions, with a strong garlic-like aroma. The plant proliferates in woodlands from Canada to Georgia and probably gave the city of Chicago its name; chicagoua appears to be a native Illinois name for what French explorers called ail sauvage, or “wild garlic.” But the recent commercial exploitation may be taking its toll.
Take one case study in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For years, the superintendent’s compendium allowed foragers to collect a half a peck of ramps. The belief was that small harvests didn’t represent a threat to the sustainability of the ephemeral woodland plant—even though, unlike collecting nuts and berries, ramp foragers dig up the entire plant. “We let this go on because we thought that it was something that was going to die out with the old timers,” Janet Rock, a botanist with the National Park Service, told me. “It turned out that it just became more and more and popular. Rangers were seeing people take a lot out of the park—more than a peck a day for personal consumption.”
Beginning in 1989, Rock and researchers at the University of Tennessee conducted a five-year study. It’s one of the few scientific studies of ramp harvesting out there. Based on what they found—essentially harvesting 10 percent, or less, of a given patch once every 10 years enabled it to regrow—the National Park Service stopped allowing ramp harvests in 2004. This, in turn, pushed foragers into national forests and also coincided with an increase in ramp poaching on private property.
What are the chances that permits could lead to a sustainable solution—could parks issue limited ramp-hunting permits with bag limits, sort of like fishing licenses? “The problem is enforcement,” Rock said. “You can say, ‘Go in and take 10 percent of what you see.’ But it’s not human nature to do that.” Especially when you can sell a mess of ramps for $20 a pound.