The leeks are up. Patches of our native wild onion have appeared like vast green islands in the moist leaf mat of local woodlands. They are a sure sign of renewal after our long winter and the fits and starts of our cold, wet spring.
Leeks, also known as ramps, grow wild in the woods from Georgia to Quebec and as far west as Minnesota. In fact, Chicago, IL, is said to have derived its name from the Native American “Shikako” or “skunk place” due to the abundance of wild onions in that area. Leeks are known for their potent, garlic-like flavor and their ephemerally brief growing season.
Now is the time for dandelion and leek salads and to make pickled leeks, leek and potato soup and grilled leeks—which are especially good with asparagus—another harbinger of spring.
Now is also the time for ramp festivals, which celebrate the humor and folklore of this aromatic delicacy and can feature leek eating contests and the crowning of a local girl as “the maid of the ramps” much like our county dairy princess. These festivals have been held down south for generations and have even been held locally in recent years.
My mother, who as a child attended a one-room school house in French Woods, NY, often recalled boys running off to eat leeks at recess then breathing their leeky breath on the girls, no doubt in the hopes of being sent home for the rest of the day. However, their teacher, Anna Cooper, didn’t fall for the trick, and instead instructed the girls to slap any boy who breathed his wild onion breath upon them. I suppose it settled down after a time. However, my mother never did much care for leeks.
Lately, leeks have become big business for high end restaurants and farmers’ markets, partly due to the growing interest in wild and local food. In fact, according to an article published recently by The New York Times, leek populations are in danger of being damaged due to over-harvesting. According to the article, the leek is now listed as threatened in Quebec where sales have been banned since 1995. Locally, wild leek populations seem to be flourishing and there is currently no regulation on leek harvesting. Still, some botanists warn that without more protection, the leek could go the way of wild ginseng, the once bountiful medicinal root now rare to local woodlands.
When digging wild leeks, avoid picking young, small or flowering plants. Take only part of each clump and replant the rest. Leeks are best used fresh, but will not keep for long. The slender, scallion-like bulbs enlarge as the season goes on—these are the best for pickling.
The vibrant patches can be seen from our roadsides, sometimes even acres wide, and often near streams in loamy woodland soil. Each spring, I pick a lustrous bouquet of wild leeks from one of the patches I remember from when I was a kid or from a newly discovered spot. Bouquets of wild onions are, after all, always the perfect gift for any beloved.