A treasury of wild leeks

Sam Worley
May 22, 2017 · 3 min read
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Rain overnight softened the soil and brought out a tolerable number of mosquitoes. I went back into the woods where yesterday I found ramps covering the forest floor; I collected a fistful then, but this morning I brought a plastic bag. They came up more easily from the looser ground, and I figured out a better way to harvest them — pull to the side rather than straight up so that the thin purple stem doesn’t break off from the bulb. In some places the ramps grew literally as far as my eye could see; on the ground, the only color other than green was the white of the three-petaled trilliums that cropped up here and there. Some of the ramp’s leaves, not many, had been chewed by deer.

In much of the North American continent it is nearly June, but in Upper Michigan it’s still early spring. The trees are barely in leaf. The leaves’ appearance in the woods is spotty, like they’ve been sponge-painted across the forest, or sprinkled like pale-green confetti. Ripley and I found the ramps on a trail that I’ve skied many times but never seen without snow, and even though it’s not winter, and even though I haven’t been there in ten or fifteen years, the progression of the forest felt familiar as I moved through it — I could recall, for instance, the spot not far from the trailhead where the path declines gently into a shaded grove, a movement away from the bright and deciduous and into the dark and evergreen. Right now it’s practically a marsh, which presented more of a challenge for me than it did for Ripley, who plunged right through it, and drank from it too.

Ramps, Allium tricoccum, are what the city of Chicago is named for — they’re the smelly onions whose name, shikaakwa, the French learned from the Algonquian people who lived near what was then largely a swamp. It’s odd that they’ve become popular, and expensive, under the name “ramps” — a blunt and mechanical word, from Old English, via Appalachia — rather than by some more alluring descriptor, like “wild leeks” or “wild garlic.” They taste like a dank, muted combination of both. They smell like garlic and dirt. I picked too many, but on the other hand I could probably earn $50 for them at a farmers’ market in Chicago.

In the woods, I saw two white-tailed deer a split second before Ripley did; only one of us took off after them. But somebody has cut a lot of the trees down in that section of the forest, and Ripley was frustrated by a wall of brush between her and her quarry. I grabbed her and put her on the leash. She never would’ve caught them. When I got back to the house I went through the pleasing motions of sorting, rinsing, drying, and planning — the beginning of the process of processing vegetables to keep for later. I chopped up some leaves and brined them. Is it possible to make kraut from ramp leaves? I guess we’ll see.

The news says it’ll be a big year for ticks, which is something I can attest to — in just two months I’ve found two attached to me and two more crawling on me without digging in. You could also ask my grandma, who’s mentioned the tick problem, which she heard about on TV, every single time I’ve seen her in the last few weeks. Last night we came in from the woods and went into town for dinner and, as I was reading the Escanaba Daily Press in my grandma’s easy chair, I noticed a wood tick crawling across the page. Presumably I was its carrier. You can’t crush ticks — you have to flush them — and so there was no hiding from Grandma that her worst fears had come true, and in her own blue recliner, no less. She’ll be talking about it for months.

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