Could Digging Ramps Have Unintended Consequences?

This blog post came from Lawrence Davis-Hollander, an ethnobotanist, former director and founder of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, author of Tomato: A Fresh from the Vine Cookbook, and  president of, the artwork of his wife Margo. His blogs can be found on,

This year, well over 2 million plants of ramps will be harvested for culinary purposes.

My first encounter with ramps took place when I was 19 on a preserve in Connecticut, where I was conducting a vegetation inventory for a summer internship with the Nature Conservancy. For a couple of weeks I tramped along side Dean, a master soil conservationist who reminded me of a younger Euell Gibbons, and his sidekick Ralph, mapping soils. Soil guys always carry a small spade and once Dean spied the ramps he exclaimed “thare’s lunch boys.” For the remainder of the days together when we were in the right habitat, Dean and I would quell the hunger gnawing our stomachs with a snack of raw ramp bulbs. Just brush off the earth and pop them in your mouth.

Since that time I have occasionally dug a few ramps in the spring, savoring their unique subtle flavor when cooked. In recent years I became concerned when I noticed how much media coverage they were getting, how many restaurants were serving them, and food stores selling them. This was no longer the occasional expert forager gathering a few ramps for a meal or two, rather the equivalent of hundreds of people out digging in a patch of ramps. I knew enough about the ecology and botany of the rich woods in which ramps grow to know this was not a good trend.

Commercial foraged samples I saw showed me that they were being harvested carelessly—baby and immature ramps were being dug right along with mature plants. In the Berkshires, where live wild food specialist Russ Cohen lives, I noticed whole patches being decimated.

If you have ever dug ramps you know that sometimes they are quite prolific, yet how long would it take to harm the population?  Unfortunately we have proved that as humans we are quite capable of over utilizing our natural resources for our own designs with too little understanding for the consequences of our actions.  Our best example in the United States is ginseng. Botanists believe ginseng was just as common as ramps are today. Yet ginseng is now virtually extinct from many woods, and generally scarce or rare today.  Ramps, like ginseng, tend to grow in some of our nicest and richest eastern woodlands, those populated by other fragile spring flowers such as Trilliums, Bloodroot, Mayapple, Blue and Black Cohosh and many others.

In talking to many botanists who have looked carefully at ramps and woodland plants there is a concern about the future of ramps due to its new found culinary cache. Harvesting was banned in Smokey Mountain National Park about ten years ago due to field studies showing that the long time traditional local harvesting practices were having a major effect upon ramp populations. As much as 90% of some patches had been harvested, which was estimated to take 100 years to recover. Patches where 25% of the population was harvested were estimated to require 10 years to recover.  Even a harvest of only 5% might take 2 years.

Anecdotal information from old time harvesters indicate that patches have been greatly diminished in the last decade, undoubtedly due to this new interest in wild ramps.

Amongst the concerns voiced by botanists are the reduction of the ability of the plants to reproduce because of over harvesting, disturbance of the woodland habitat by digging and trampling, and the resulting ability of invasive plants to spread.

Studies in Quebec led to a ban on commercial harvesting for the entire province, with only small amounts allowed to be dug for personal use.  Three states now have ramps listed as plants of special concern. While they can be cultivated it takes about 7 years to produce a mature plant. Currently the ramps on the commercial market are all wild dug.

If there is such a thing as a sustainable harvest of ramps, no one currently knows what that number is. Clearly it is under 5%.

An alternative to destroying the whole plant is utilizing the leaves. For flavor the leaves are excellent and keep refrigerated for several weeks.  Leaf harvest is currently being studied. It is not clear how sustainable that practice is. I think it’s possible if not more than 20% of a patch was harvested of leaves each year that this might be sustainable. This is only a guess.

Chefs and food purveyors can help to reverse this trend.  The contemporary mass harvesting of an entire food plant like ramps in the United States may be unprecedented.  Every botanist I have spoken with was very concerned about the current trajectory.  If you must use ramps then ask your suppliers to provide you with leaves. There may be no such thing as sustainably harvested bulbs at a commercial level.

Could we create system for regulation, or certification of sustainable or farm raised ramps? It is possible, and it raises far more questions than can be answered in the near term.

All of us need to keep asking the important questions about our food and its origins.

Curiosity will lead us to inquire about what needs to be learned, while caring will lead us to want to do the right thing in the best way, culminating in kindness—the action of caring. As we think about the common good, what works for the sake of the whole, it seems evident to me that mining ramps is not a net contribution.

I’m happy to talk with anyone about this topic. If you want to read my full article or get a copy of the Ramps Action Alert please go to



New Food Photos

These are recent photos taken by the very talented  Kate Newberry Gillin Sommers for a brochure I’m working on.

Salmon Tartare photo by Kate NG Sommers

Petite Filet and Chanterelles photo by Kate NG Sommers

Caramelized Fennel and Shrimp photo by Kate NG Sommers

Smoked Salmon and Beets photo by Kate NG Sommers

Braised Shortrib photo by Kate NG Sommers

Pumpkin Brule photo by Kate NG Sommers

TV Dinner

If you are like me, I’m sure you spent some time grilling this past Memorial weekend.  Nevertheless, I ended up doing a live cooking segment on the Fox 9 morning show.

Pork chops in Marinade

I prepared Grilled Pork Chops with a Rhubarb Pink Peppercorn Sauce. It was with out a doubt the fastest 5 minutes of my life possibly because of how nervous I was.

Rhubarb Pink Peppercorn Sauce

In fact I totally forgot to talk about the upcoming National Pork Taste of Elegance, in Baltimore on June 14th. Stay tuned for more info on that. In the meantime check out the recipe and let me know how you like it.

Free Agency

As of today I’m now a free agent. I’m very excited to put forth energy into the upcoming National Pork Board Taste of Elegance. I’m very proud to be representing the great state of Minnesota.
As well I’m developing a business plan for a new restaurant.
In the mean time, If anyone has a need for a chef let me know.

Award Winning Pork Recipes

As promised here is the link to all 16 recipes from this year’s Taste of Elegance, including mine. The dish can be duplicated, although the technique will take some time.

Here’s the scoop on all the other contestants that placed. I have to hand it to the other competitors because all their dishes were all great plates.

My favorite was “Four Little Pigs”  Chef Tuan Nguyen – Minnesota Valley Country Club, Bloomington. He was docked points by the judges for using shrimp in a pork themed competition which is too bad. The flavors in his dish were spot on.

From MN Pork Board:

David Vlach, sous chef at Heidi’s Minneapolis, received first place, chef par excellence, at the 2010 Minnesota Pork Board’s Taste of Elegance competition. Judges awarded Vlach first place for his recipe, Spiced Slow-Cooked Pork Shank with Gremolata and Black Beluga Lentil Tomato Stew.

The 22nd annual Minnesota Taste of Elegance competition took place Jan. 19 at the Minneapolis Hilton. The pork competition is hosted by the Minnesota Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff on behalf of Minnesota’s pork producers. The event showcases the versatility of pork, the creativity of chefs and promotes the inclusion of pork on restaurant menus.
Vlach’s pork entrée highlighted slowly braised pork shank seasoned with gingerroot, lemon zest, cinnamon, cumin, cayenne and fennel seed. Vlach plated the pork shank with complimentary-seasoned black beluga lentils, which are small beans that resembles beluga caviar after cooking, and a showy original gremolata recipe flavored with chopped raisins, capers, shallots, parsley and mint.
Vlach received $1,500 in prize money and will represent the Minnesota Pork Board at the National Taste of Elegance this spring in Baltimore, Md.

Tom Kavanaugh, co-owner and chef of Kavanaugh’s Sylvan Lake Resort, East Gull Lake, earned second place, superior chef, and $1,000 in prize money, for his original pork recipe, Uova Con Pancetta E Salsiccia Di Fegato Di Maiale (Bacon and Eggs with Pork Liver). This entrée utilized pork belly, pork shoulder and pork liver.

Serge Devesa, executive chef for Hotel Sofitel, Bloomington, placed third, premium chef, to earn $750 in prize money. Devesa prepared Duo of Maple-Glazed Pork Belly and Sweetbread Roulade Calvados Reduction and Crackling. The plated dish showcased pan-seared pork belly cut into squares and roulade prepared with pork loin and prosciutto.

The People’s Choice Award went to Derek Black, an executive chef for Sodexo at the St. Paul-based company Ecolab. After sampling all the pork entrées, the 500 guests at the evening award’s program selected Black’s deliciously fun recipe, Carnitas with Cones and Lemongrass-Scented Rice and Kimchee, for the People’s Choice Award. Black received $750 for his recipe featuring15 seasonings and pulled pork prepared from pork butt.
Tim Cockram, executive chef and director of food and beverage operations at the Owatonna Country Club in Owatonna received the $250 best table display award.

This year’s judges were Dr. Brian Bergquist, a professor in the hotel, restaurant and tourism management program at the University of Wisconsin-Stout; Stephan Hesse, last year’s Minnesota and National Taste of Elegance winner and executive chef at Kona Grill, Eden Prairie, and Charlie Torgerson, a National Pork Board Celebrated Chef, restaurant consultant and restaurant owner. The judges based their decisions on taste, appearance and originality of the pork dish.