Wild mountain ‘ramps’ becoming harder to find: here’s why

Overpicking for food, a brief growing season, long recovery time, and even climate change are to blame for low numbers in the Smoky Mountains.
Published: Apr. 22, 2022 at 9:30 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - A local delicacy grows in our mountains, ripe for only a couple weeks a year. Chances are your grandparents ate them, and you’ll find them on the menu of Knoxville’s nicest restaurants. They’re called ramps --- and their numbers are now small.

“It’s hard to find them, they’re not everywhere,” UT’s Dr. Lou Gross told WVLT News.

Ramps are a sure sign of late April in the Smokies.

“They are one of the first plants to come up in the spring-time,” the USDA’s Dr. Jim Chamberlain said.

“They come up around February sometimes if it’s warm,” said Cynthia Johnston, a Cosby herbalist.

Now, the stinky wild onion (allium) has a lot working against it. First up, a long life cycle and over-picking.

“The time to recover from a harvest can be very long - 100 years if you do an extensive harvest,” Gross said.

Gross said that just a few minutes of picking, and the damage is done. Now ramp picking is banned in the national park.

“You can harvest 10% of a patch maybe every ten years, without having significant impact,” Chamberlain said. “So think about that, that’s a pretty small amount.”

Chamberlain works for the USDA. He’s an expert in forest plants, and ramps are a specialty.

“I’ve measured tens of thousands of plants,” Chamberlain said.

He likes them in soups. others fry them in bacon grease and add eggs. Many haven’t even heard of them, or only tasted them at well-known ramp festivals.

“What people are missing is just a really beautiful food. Although it seems like a lot of city people know about them because they come out here and dig them,” Johnston said.

Taking the bulb takes the plant. Johnston uses small amounts for her MoonMaid Botanicals. She’s been eating the leaves for decades.

“The flavor will just pop,” she said. But ramps are very fickle.

Dr. Gross said the Smokies are as far south as they’ll grow. Ramps have to grow fast.

“That biomass is increasing maybe 30 percent every week,” Chamberlain said.

Until the trees box ramps in. You’ll only find them for around three weeks in April. This hill near Cosby has been visited for at least 40 years by Cynthia’s older neighbor.

“She’s seen them disappear over her 90-year lifespan,” Johnston said.

Because they’re often over picked, only grow for a short amount of the year and in higher elevations, the experts we talked to say that ramps are uniquely vulnerable to climate change.

“A couple of degree changes due to climate,” Chamberlain said.

Dr. Gross said if you look around, you’ll already see that impact on your own life.

“We’ve seen climate change here in East Tennessee,” Gross said.

They’re very sensitive to temperature regime changes.

In the Smokies it won’t take much. Both researchers said it’s often hard to see such change because that takes decades.

“We just don’t see it, because it’s really slow,” Chamberlain said.

“Ramps are a unique cultural benefit to this area,” Gross said.

For the Cherokee, homesteaders before there was a national park, for the visitors at the many ramp festivals in East Tennessee, the report has three words:

“Ramps are threatened.”

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