Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ramp it up: City dwellers' taste for wild leeks may threaten the species

Ramp harvesting is a long tradition in Appalachian forests from Georgia to Quebec, but some biologists fear harvesting has endangered these wild leeks. "Over the last two decades, the lucrative market for ramps during their short early-spring season has drawn a horde of new diggers, who cart them out of the forest in unprecedented quantities," Indrani Sen reports for The New York Times. James Chamberlain, a research scientist with the United States Forest Service, said "I think we're having an impact on ramp population. I would say that we're overharvesting the plants." (NYT photo by Jennifer May)

"Since the early 1990s, the garlicky allium, with a slender white bulb, dark red stem and succulent green leaves, has gone from a Southern belle to a big-city starlet, with breathless articles in glossy magazines, top billing on restaurant menus and a paparazzi-like reception when the first crates arrive at farmers’ markets in April," Sen writes. The local food movement has pushed prices as high as $12 a pound. "We’re so over winter, and we’re so ecstatic about ramps," New York City chef Marco Canora told Sen. "There’s nothing local right now. These ramps are the first local spring thing."

Lawrence Davis-Hollander, a Massachusetts ethnobotanist, said there is no definitive data on damage to ramp populations but now is the time to investigate before ramps become as rare as ginseng, another plant that used to be plentiful in U.S. woods, Sen reports. Quebec has listed the plant as threatened and banned its sale in 1995. Ramp harvesting was also banned in 2004 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. "At the rate we’re harvesting," Davis-Hollander said, "the honest answer is we don’t know the effect we’re having." (Read more)

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