It is possible, though, to love too much; there is concern that overharvesting threatens the sustainability of these plants. Ramps are found in forests from Georgia north into Canada, but because it’s not easy to assess the status of a plant that grows mostly off the beaten track and only for a short season, it isn’t actually clear whether ramps are in decline across this region.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park banned ramps foraging more than a decade ago, after a study concluded that sustainable harvesting required taking no more than 10 percent of a patch of ramps once every 10 years.
Ramps don’t replace themselves quickly, as the Smoky Mountains research found. They can be grown from seeds, but it can take from 5-7 years for a plant to mature to harvest. Ramps also spread through underground rhizomes: Sustainable harvesting practice includes taking only about a third of a clump of ramps, preserving the entire clump’s rhizome and roots, and returning the remaining two-thirds (along with the rhizome and roots) to the ground to continue growing.
As a means of both economic development and conservation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agroforestry Center has promoted forest cultivation of ramps by landowners whose property includes the ideal wooded setting for the plant. But even the center’s growing guide acknowledges that the long maturation period and sustainable-harvest constraints mean that ramps don’t make for a get-rich-quick scheme, noting that “generating income requires patience.”
If you’re curious to try ramps the traditional way, the best bet for the full-flavor experience is to head to a regional ramps festival. In Whitetop, the event is sponsored by and benefits the Mt. Rogers Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad. It features Old Time music and dancing, arts and crafts, a ramps-eating contest, barbecue chicken dinner, and of course plenty of ramps for your enjoyment. This year, the festival will be held May 21. When you get to Whitetop, head to the fire hall.
Or just follow your nose.