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Ramps, wild onion, wild garlic. These are some of our best wild foods come springtime.
More than 100 species of wild alliums call North America home — allium being the genus covering both onions and garlic — but it is the Eastern ramp, Allium tricoccum, that has been all the rage among chefs in recent years. They’ve become so popular I even see chefs here in California using them with abandon; no native ramp grows within 2,000 miles of San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Locavore issues aside, perhaps the trendiest thing about ramps right now is to bemoan their overharvest.
Is this happening? Certainly, in some places. I’ve seen some startling before and after photos. But most professional foragers I know harvest the same patches of ramps every year — and some of these folks have been picking for 30+ years. They know, as well as any good farmer, that you don’t eat your seed corn. The sustainability of any bulb, corm, root or rhizome harvest all hinges on how you pick the plant.
Here’s how you do it.
First and foremost, you must find your onions. Ramps are showy onions with large, wide leaves. They’re pretty easy to spot, especially in Eastern woodlands, where they can literally carpet the forest floor for acres. Most wild onions are not so easily located, although one, the invasive three-cornered leek of California and Oregon, A. triquetrum, is almost as gaudy as the ramp.
There’s an onion for pretty much every environment, from deserts to forests to streamsides to lawns to high above the treeline in Alpine meadows. My favorite is the dusky onion, A. campanulatum, which is common in the mountains from California to British Columbia.
Onions, being bulb plants, send up grasslike shoots first. This can be as early as January in the Bay Area for the three-cornered leek, to mid-July for Alpine onions. Onions, in general, like to live in large troops: It’s weird to find just one onion.
A great many species of wild onion have a rosy blush to the base of their stems. But not all. Your nose is your best tool when trying to figure out if that grassy shoot you are looking at is an onion. Anything that looks like an onion that also smells like an onion is an onion. Lots of bulbs, some of them poisonous, can look like an onion, but none will also smell like one, too.
Once you’ve found your onions, look at the patch. Are there only a few onions there? Or does the patch have hundreds or even thousands of plants? If there are only a few, consider moving on. I like to pick patches with at least 100 plants, and preferably patches even larger than that. Regardless, follow these rules when you do decide to pick:
- Pick only the largest individuals. See the photo above? There are a dozen little onions in that image, and only the largest one is worth picking.
- Stick and move. Pick that large one and move on. Look for another large one. By doing this, you will scatter your picking activity and leave the patch thinned, without large holes in it.
- Take only 10 to 20 percent of any given patch. And that 20 percent number is only really for private ground or ground you have a very good idea that no one else knows about. Think about it: If I collect 10 percent of an onion patch, then you come along and take 10 percent, then two other people come… well, we’ve screwed that patch, haven’t we?
- If you really need some wild onions, but the patch is pretty small, pick one large green leaf from each plant. That’s what I do with my Chinese garlic chives at home and they never appear to really notice it. It’s a good way to get that flavor you crave without digging up the whole plant.
Speaking of digging, know that the bulbs on most wild onion species are very small. Do you really need that bulb?
It’s a fair question. I dig my onions, and I do take bulbs, but not always. Most of the plant is above ground, so picking off the tops gives you a lot of onion while leaving the bulb. My colleague Russ Cohen in Massachusetts harvests his ramps this way. But, I like to pickle the little bulbs, or feature them in dishes, so I dig.
Ramps and nodding onions, A. cernuum — which live in almost every state but California — do have decent-sized bulbs. When you unearth the bulb of most wild onions, you will see it surrounded by many tiny little bulblets. It’s very important to replant all those bulblets and any small onions you may have disturbed while digging the big one.
This actually can help the onion patch because those bulblets stay small and dormant while the large onion is in place. Removing it opens up space for the rest of the onions to grow; this is true for any bulb or corm plant, like camas.
Many onions also have a cool trick they can play with their roots. Their roots are attached to the bulb with something like a breakaway: You can snap off the whole root cluster, leaving the bulb clean. The cool part? You can replant that root cluster and it will grow a new onion. Try this with a store-bought leek sometime. It’s trippy.
Finally, if you are going after bulbs, you will want to wait until the foliage is dying down and the flowers have set seed. All onion flowers are similar: Loose balls of smaller flowers that smell like onions, usually pink or white. This is a cluster from a dusky wild onion:
This onion’s not ready to dig yet, because the flowers are just blooming.These Idaho onions, however, are in perfect shape to dig.
I found these on a mountainside while hunting blue grouse last September. Their flower clusters had long since set seeds, and in fact most of the seeds had blown away. I probably should have dug a bunch that day, because I never did see, let alone shoot, any grouse…
Keep your onions cool and as you collect, and point them in the same direction; this keeps the amount of dirt in the foliage to a minimum.
When you get home, clean the onions in a basin of cool water by gently rubbing them down to remove old, dry skin. Once cleaned, wrap in a damp paper towel and put them in a covered container or plastic bag in the refrigerator. Stored this way, the onions will keep for about a week to 10 days before they deteriorate.
Use them as you would any green onion. I like to put them into everything in springtime, from eggs to pasta sauce to meatballs and Chinese scallion pancakes. If you want to preserve your onions, I like to pickle the bulbs, make Korean kimchi, lacto-ferment the whole wild onion or dehydrate them and grind them to make your own onion powder. Did I miss any preservation methods I ought to consider? After all, it is onion season…
Hi Hank! What species is in the first photo of this article?
Andrea: It’s a Sierra Nevada wild onion. Can’t remember the exact species, but they are all over about 6500 feet.
What happens if you pick onions while the flowers are still pink? I was up in the mountains in central Nevada and was thrilled to see so many, so I grabbed several, but the flowers are all still pink. Did I waste my efforts? Are they edible? Thanks!
Beth: They are still edible.
U should list the poisonous look alikes too
There are no poisonous lookalikes that smell like onion. This is worldwide. If it looks AND smells like an onion, go ahead and enjoy it.
I just found a patch of Nodding onions. When is the best time to harvest them? Can I pick some now, or should I let them grow?
Bruce: you can harvest some now.
I have several plants which smell like oinion when one bbreaks off a piece. I ate them last year. This year I have noticed a big bulb on to which ahs developed into many other bulbs. The bulbs are external and at the top of he stem. Can you shed light upon this please
Dave: Sure, this is how many onions reproduce. They are called bulblets and are tasty, BTW. at some point the onion stem droops and the bulblets get into the soil.
Can wild onions be planted in a pot indoors? Since it is getting difficult to find good places to forage for just about anything in this area of WI, I thought about trying to plant what I can indoors and enjoy it.
Jennifer: Ramps are notoriously hard to grow, so probably not. But other wild onions will easily grow in a pot.
I’ve had great luck transplanting ramps to my yard.
Do you ever use the wild onion seed heads before they bloom in recipes?
Great write up! Last year I pickled ramps with asparagus. Great reminder of spring in January. I made pesto with the ramp leaves.
I have picked leeks in Michigan’s upper pen, I find them in mid May before the ferns are all the way up, I have never seen them bloom, that doesn’t mean they don’t , bit by mid to end of June they are gone, is that the whole season?
Steven: Yep, pretty much.
I am looking for the little wild onion that produces a myriad of little white bell shaped flowers, much like snowdrops, but smaller size plants. Is there a particular name for this species? From my childhood, they were found in mostly shaded areas on our way to school! Thanks much,
Dorie: Sounds like a three-cornered leek. Native to Europe, but it has invaded the Pacific Coast.
Take a good quality, artisanal apple cider vinegar (like what you can easily make at home), and infuse wild onions, ramps, or garlic in it for at least a couple of weeks, preferably longer. Both the alliums and the vinegar will be AMAZING!
I’m in ms and the bulbs here are as big as my hand. Is this normal?
Elisha: No, it’s not. Maybe you have a feral garden onion? Or maybe it’s not an onion at all?
Im glad i read your post, i think i found some wild green onions in a vacant lot next door ,they were coming up under my fence ,i thought they were weeds ,when i started pulling them out i got the strong smell of onions,they have small bulbs on them ,some are tiny,but smell strong,can i cook theses?
I was looking at maybe transplant some into a non-mowed area. Although I love the first Spring mowing, wild onions and mint. Makes me hungry with the aroma. I do not mind the messed up holes in my yard, that can be repaired easily. Right now in WNC we are having an early Spring with way too much rain. A month before actual Spring. Can they be dug and transplanted into my ‘weed garden’ that is supposed to be a flower garden.
I am looking to put Allium Tricoccum bulbs in the ground after the snow clears. I’m in eastern Washington (zone 6) with freezing temps at night (10-25 degrees celsius), often in the 30’s during the day and lots of snow on the ground until April. Since the bulbs can’t yet be planted in the ground can potted bulbs be placed outdoors until such time as they can be planted? Or, can one dig up the snow, plant the bulbs in soil and let the snow cover them? Would it be best to harvest the leaves while still in their pots and transplant the bulbs in the Fall. Will they be able to withstand freezing temps? Will the pots survive being blanketed by snow?
I have a large area under fruit trees where Viola adunca has for several years volunteered. Very hearty and prolific rhizome spreader. Might this be a good spot to plant the Allium bulbs?
Ever used marsh onions?
Joann: You mean the swamp onions of the High Sierra? You bet, I love them.
Are all Ramps edible?
Norma: All wild onions are edible.
Man I am right now fully submerged in your awesome site…and I just found it less than an hour ago! Really superior stuff here – so glad to see it in such a down-to-earth, no fuss kind of way. I just pulled some chicory roots from my yard (that’s how I stumbled upon your site) and tomorrow I am super excited to join into your podcast for my morning drive! Been on the foraging path for awhile now but want to ultimately shut the door in the commercial food industry’s face for good (well, you know what I mean…) Anyway, you rock!
A few years ago a friend gave me a bunch of wild onion sets to plant in my Herb garden. There were a large amount of them that grew this year and I have not had a chance to use any of them and they eventually have dried out with a cloved head on each onion. I got rid of the dead stems and shoveled up weeds that had grown among them. I’m finding a lot of what looks like Pearl Onions in the dirt and in eating one it tasted like a mild onion. Do you know what kind of wild onion they would be?
Ella: Nope. There are scores of species in North America. But if it smells like an onion, it’s an onion!
My onions started a long shoot (3 Feet tall) with a round flower looking thing
on top. When I pulled it up, it definitel, smelled oniony but looked more garliclike with separate cloves. Is this edible onion or did I wait too long to pick it?