How to Harvest Wild Onions


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Sierra Nevada wild onions
Photo by Hank Shaw

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.

The three cornered leek, an invasive wild onion
Photo by Hank Shaw

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.

Sierra wild onions
Photo by Hank Shaw

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.

Trimming wild onion roots off
Photo by Hank Shaw

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:

Wild onion flower from the Sierra Nevada
Photo by Hank Shaw

This onion’s not ready to dig yet, because the flowers are just blooming.These Idaho onions, however, are in perfect shape to dig.

Idaho wild onion flowers
Photo by Hank Shaw

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…

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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  1. Where should I be looking for these? Spent plenty of time foraging mushrooms and asparagus (even nettles) in Northern Utah, and can’t say that I’ve ever found any. Dying to try…

  2. I have l an abundance of wild onions that I weed out of my flower and vegetable beds every spring. I once made an onion soup from my gatherings and ended up with an acute stomach ache – sharp pains. I read somewhere that the California wild onion “weed” variety had high levels of oxalic acid and was the probable cause of the reaction. I still occasionally use a few chopped leaves in salad but am wary of any larger quantities.

    1. Deborah: Sounds to me like you might not have eaten onions? Maybe something else got in there? Or you just had a bad reaction. Sorry to hear that! But there’s no oxalic acid in onions, to my knowledge.

  3. On poisonous onions: There is one poisonous look-alike to field garlic, a common wild flower called Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum). It comes up at the same time and often right next to some field garlic. It is easily distinguished by the flat shape of the long leaves, a white stripe along the length of the leaf, and no onion odor. It produces a white, 6 petaled flower. The bulbs of this flower contain alkaloids and cardenolides, which are toxic to humans and livestock.

  4. Can you tell me when is a good time to transplant ramps? I have a huge spreading area in our NJ woods that I want to move up to our home in the Adirondack woods. I’d like to dig up a big bunch to transplant. They are about 6″ tall right now.

    1. Diane: Not 100% sure, but if it were me I would wait a while. I prefer to transplant all onions well after the greens die back. My advice: Rope off or otherwise mark those you want to transplant, and then, in maybe June when the greens are dead, dig and move.

  5. I’m certain that I read somewhere that all members of the allium family are edible. Therefore I doubt you should worry about getting your hands on something poisonous. But when in doubt, check it out! Compare your harvest to images on google if you have doubts.

  6. There are poisonous onions that look just like wild onions except they don’t smell like onions and taste like chemicals. It takes a lot to make your sick. If it smells like a onion and looks like a onion that’s how you tell the difference.

    1. John: Yes, I say this in the post. And there are no poisonous onions. There are plants that look a little like onions, though. I am guessing that is what you mean.

  7. I have small patches all around my yard, I have always just mowed over them and loved the smell. My neighbor told me they were to eat, but I still wonder. They are very hard small bulbs that really get very stiff after they have dried out. My question to you is of course do you think these are safe to eat and or make chives with?

  8. I’ve been cutting the bottom of scallions, and sticking them into a pot in the kitchen, where they regrow. I put some of these out in the yard late summer, and much to my surprise, they made it through the winter and are still growing.

    As for responsible harvesting from the wild, an observation,
    A healthy stretch of showy wild flowers at the top of my road, 20 years ago. Every year, a crop of “it’s only me, and I’m leaving some” would dig up plants roots and all, until the entire colony is now gone.

    1. Amy: Then you are either not alone in digging or you are digging too aggressively. I have tended patches of wild onions for a decade and they are bigger than they were when I found them.

  9. We just happened upon a “honey hole” while hunting turkeys. Great tips for conservation, when they are ready for harvesting I will make sure to follow them.
    Since I was young, I have always loved cooking and this “new” way of foraging and using locally grown regional products has sparked such a passion for me!
    Thanks for sharing!!!

  10. I really would like to know where in the Sierra Nevada I could find some wild onions. There is a creek called “Onion Creek” not far from Sugar Bowl Ski Area that is a tributary to the “North Fork of The American River” but I have never been able to find any onions along it although I haven’t traced the entire length of it. Do you know anything about it?
    When I was a kid in grade school at a one-room country school in Minnesota, we kids would eat wild onions from the school yard at recess time and the teacher thought we did it just to annoy her!

    1. Ken: My patches are secret, but you will want to go up past 5000 feet. Wild onions grow in big colonies, so it will be rare to find just one.

  11. Michael: That’s true for the ramp, which does get that cool woody root thingie underneath the bulb. It is even more of a “breakaway root” cluster than our Sierra dusky onions, and should definitely be returned to the soil.

    BUT, if you buy ramps and they are attached, you can a) replant the roots in a shady, forested spot on your land; they may or may not take, or b) dry them and eat them. Dried ramp roots are crispy and onion-y, and it at least makes use of everything you took out of the forest.

  12. I have been picking wild leeks for many years and I cringe when I see the mass of roots coming off the bottom of the bulb. That means that the woody root section has been removed as well, which should be left in the ground. I never use a shovel and only pick what can be snapped off the root section, leaving very little roots attached to the bulb. If I accidentally get a piece of the root I break it off and put it back in the hole it came from.

    Great site Hank. I have tried some of your recipes and look forward to trying many more. Cheers

  13. I always enjoy your posts, here in New England we don’t always have the varieties of the wild food you have in your neck of the woods. But we have ramps! I have a forest full just outside my door. I make WILD PESTO. I use both the leaves and small bulb, pine nuts (wish we had those wild here) and parmesan. Sometimes if the ramps are especially garlicky, I add either cooked fiddlehead ferns or basil or spinach. I freeze containers for the winter, using it for cooking or as a dip for veggies. 🙂

  14. Hank, Thanks so much for this. We just planted 100 ramp bulbs around our property. Hopefully in a few years we’ll have a harvestable crop.

  15. Nate: Yep, you need to plant them as if they were a seed.

    Leo: I have never heard of a poisonous onion. I don’t think there are any.

  16. I’ve been gathering ramps from the same place for years. Unless it’s flooded. I try to not get greedy…leaving most of each colony to continue. Taking only what I think I can use. This year access to the spot was flooded. We found another… Easy-peasy… There doesn’t seem to be as much harvesting of ramps in Michigan as there is along the east coast. Lucky me. When the morels are nowhere to be found in spring one can make do with a pound or two of ramps by way of consolation. This year we were blessed with a bit of both.

  17. Great post Hank. Ramps are one of the easiest wild edibles to find and to harvest, even in areas that otherwise have a lot of foraging pressure. It certainly takes some discretion when it comes to where to harvest them though. Personally I won’t take ANY from a wooded area where they appear only sporadically in singles or pairs. A lot of upland or flat woods in the Midwest that have been heavily timbered are that way…just very few and far between, other than on the hillsides. If I can find groups of at least 6-7, I will take 1 or 2 from each of those patches and move on. In floodplain areas with rich soil where the ground really is covered with them, I’ll take what is reasonable for personal use, moving around so as not leave one spot completely bare.

    I did not know that the roots would resprout if stripped from the bulb, so thank you for that tip. That makes it a little more like ginseng harvesting in that you can help with propagation while harvesting. Do they need to be tucked back in the ground?