The first gift of spring

Under the dense overcast skies of a spring Appalachian day, deep into the forest just outside Dubois, vibrant green patches signal the first sign of flora after a cold winter: clusters of spear-shaped leaves with a sharp, distinctive odor somewhere between garlic and onion. 

These plentiful sprouts, also known as wild leeks, are a native species of onion found in woodlands across eastern North America: Allium tricoccum

With a mild flavor similar to other spring onions, the broad leaf and slim bulb have been a staple part of the spring diet across the Appalachian region for generations. An Algonquian word for the plant is translated as “Chicago;” their historic abundance is the source of the city’s name.

Although these amazing little plants grow rampant throughout their territory, they are increasingly threatened by overharvesting and habitat loss. Despite a massive range, ramps are only found in small pockets of their habitat and the plant itself takes 5-10 years to regenerate after its bulb is removed for consumption. 

Ramps are considered a threatened species in parts of Canada, and a species of special concern in several US states, including Maine and Rhode Island.  Growing in wooded areas near rivers or streams, they are quickly being displaced as the natural world is converted into commercial development, and existing patches of ramps and other wild foraged foods are at risk of overexploitation. 

Foraging from the wild has health benefits by getting people outdoors and active. It also encourages the forager to learn about their local environment, requiring vigilant observation of wild areas. Ironically, while many foragers are seeking a deeper connection to nature, they are inadvertently causing harm to the very plants they seek. 

While public parkland supports wild edible plants, they are at a high risk of over exploitation due to higher foot traffic. To promote conservation, parks often prohibit harvesting of plants. This leaves the forager with a dilemma: trespass on private property, or steal from public space and risk participating in the ravage of these delicate local plants.

One potential solution is found in the garden. It is possible to sustainably harvest from the wild without significant degradation to native populations while supporting conservation of the habitat. Specimens can be brought into the garden and reproduced in a controlled environment at much higher rates than would be supported from the wild. This type of gardening can improve species stability by allowing for greater genetic diversity. It lessens the impact on wild groups and demands greater conservation of natural space. 

Another way to reverse the damaging effects of foraging is by targeting invasive species. Instead of harvesting wild ramps all season, another option is to hunt the invasive garlic mustard, which has a similar taste profile. (Just be sure NOT to pick snakeroot, which can look similar although it often grows at a different time of year. )

Garlic Mustard (eat it)
Snakeroot (don't eat it)

The white flowers of garlic mustard are simple and flat compared to the fuzzy white snakeroot. If a visual inspection leaves any doubt, a simple smell test should suffice: A snakeroot leaf has little to no odor when picked, while garlic mustard is pungent.

This season, as wild sprouts rear their green heads, consider if the plant is native or invasive before collecting edible flora. Ask yourself: How will the harvest impact the survival and spread of the species? Where do we draw the line between harvesting and poaching? Can native seeds be collected and propagated in a controlled setting? Each day, we move further into the sixth great mass extinction, and these questions become more important for the survival of plants and animals alike, including ourselves.

Anthony Stewart is a Pittsburgh-based environmental scientist. Working through DECO Resources has allowed Stewart to explore the natural world and to test principles of sustainability as it applies to the local environment. Learn more about Stewart’s work by following on Instagram at @deco_resources or on iNaturalist at anthonystewart.