Wild Leeks & Sustainable Harvesting•
Posted on August 02 2018
Wild Leeks - Ramps - Allium tricoccum
Wild Leeks are one of the first plants to come up in the spring. Often found in maple and mixed-wood forests, they are widely considered a delicacy. Their amazing flavour and popularity comes at a great cost: over-harvesting is a serious problem and over the years they have suffered significant habitat loss. Because of this, it is important to take care when harvesting, and only remove a maximum of 5% of a patch of leeks per year, or better yet every couple years, rotating the area you harvest from and keeping to private or properly managed land. Taking more than 5% will hamper the ability of the patch to regenerate itself. Harvesting on public or shared high-traffic land, where other people may pick, can quickly lead to a total loss of the lovely spring allium. Even when wild leeks appear abundant, carpeting the floor of the forest floor they can be at risk. Often the loss of wild leeks appears abrupt. Their life cycle is roughly seven years, from when a seed sprouts to when the plant can produce its own seed. In addition, it can take two years for seeds to generate, making the life cycle of wild leeks nearly a decade long.
Wild leeks - Photo by Dyson Forbes
Also known as ‘ramps’, or ‘ail des bois’, Wild Leeks have a strong flavour similar to an onion or strong garlic. They are edible either raw or cooked, and the bulbs and the leaves are both delicious. While Douglas Adams defines the word Chicago as "a foul smelling wind following a subway", the word actually stems from the Algonquin word shikaakwa that refers to the pungent early spring treat.
Dyson picking ramps - Photo by Jonathan Forbes
It might seem odd that we sell wild leeks while speaking at length about protecting them, but we believe that through community efforts and a proper understanding of the plant it is possible to harvest in an ethical and progressive way that helps to ensure the survival of the plant. The vast majority of the leeks we sell come from the Beausoleil First Nations who rotate their harvesting area on Christian Island every year to ensure that the leeks will continue to grow year after year. A small portion of our leeks come from places where we have reintroduced them and from a progressive Mennonite farm that also produces birch and maple syrup. More than any other wild food, the harvesting and sale of wild leeks comes with many challenges and it is extremely important that it is done properly. We are always open to discussing our managed harvests.
Wild Leek Bulbs - Photo by Dyson Forbes
- Try making a pesto by blending the leaves with olive oil, pine nuts (or black walnuts), and Parmesan cheese.
- Alternatively you could use the bulbs as the garlic component to a more traditional pesto with basil, black walnuts, and Parmesan cheese.
- Roast the bulbs, or freeze for later use in soups or stir fry.
- Dry the leaves and use as a spice, or purée them and freeze for later use.
- Pickled wild leeks.
- For quick caramelized wild leeks, sauté leeks in butter with a pinch of baking powder and salt at a low temperature for ten minutes.
Wild leek seeds - Photo by Jonathan Forbes
It is not enough that we try to inform people about responsible, sustainable harvesting methods. Many people assume the rules don't apply to them. After 5 years of bulb and seed spreading, you will get a greater dispersion on plants than with just bulb planting, and older plants may start to produce seeds that can be spread further. You can help the leeks along by spreading the seed around to increase the amount of clumps around you. After about 7-10 years you can start harvesting in small amounts, using progressive methods to ensure long term survival for the plant and other local wildlife.
We seed-and-bulb spread leeks and introduce them to new forests or places that they are being lost or disappearing quickly. We also work closely with first nations communities to create harvesting plans and systems, so that the wild leeks are not threatened. We also work with the media to push the idea that a 5% harvest only works on private land and that picking 5% on public or crown land can lead to overlapping foragers taking more then is sustainable and the loss of wild leeks in that area.
How to ship and sell wild leeks
Wild leeks need a little bit of special care when being processed. Customers expect a clean, full leek with the root intact and a solid green leaf. Spraying down the roots with water helps maintain freshness as well as removes unwanted dirt, wild leeks picked from sandy soil are much easier to clean than from clay soil. Wild leeks do not have a long shelf life, once removed from the ground and cleaned they will begin to wilt.
After cleaning, place wild leeks bulb down in a kitchen waste bag that has holes or perforations cut into the bottom (this allows air to flow and water to drain). Each bag should hold roughly 8 lbs. packing them too tightly will cause leaf to become damaged and reduce shelf life.
How to protect wild leeks
- Speak up about how the harvest of wild leeks should be a licensed and protected harvest. We strongly believe that the sale of wild leeks should be regulated so that the abundance, use and practices used for harvesting wild leeks can be properly managed and collectively we ensure the long term survivability of this special food.
- Purchase wild leeks from a reputable source that is open about where the leeks come from, who is picking and what they do to ensure their harvest is sustainable. Never be afraid to ask detailed questions about the source of your food.
- Avoid sources that just rip wild leeks from the ground. Often there will be trout lilly and other plants mixed in with your leeks.
- Don't eat too many. Wild leeks are special so treat yourself but don't go wild.
- If you pick wild leeks, return to where you picked them to spread seed and break up clumps to speed up their ability to spread.
For more information about wild leeks and any other of our sustainably-sources products, contact us today at Forbes Wild Foods.
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Great article, thank you for sharing. In gratitude for this plant, I am interested in stewarding/spreading/propagating wild leek seeds near me and have a few questions I was hoping you might be able to shed some light on:
1. Should I wait until wild leek seeds shed their green protective membrane before collecting them?
2. Do you need to remove the green membrane before spreading/planting?
3. When spreading seeds on site (in a patch of wild leeks), how do you distribute them? Do you toss them around? Create beds or furrows in the ground (then press, cover with leaf mulch, etc.)? If the latter, how do you choose where to dig in order to not cause disruption?
4. When you talk about breaking up clumps to speed up their ability to spread, does that mean taking a bulb or two from a clump and transplanting them somewhere else? How much rootstock do I need to dig up to do that successfully?
5. What else might I need to know?
Any insights would be much appreciated!