Wild Leeks: A Woodland Herb and Good Food
an Ancient Tradition as Winter Moves Away
Throughout much of the eastern North American continent, the wild leeks began to emerge in late March and early April. Leeks, or as they are called in some regions, ramps, or wild onions, are an ancient native plant to North America.
The wild leeks flourish in rich, moist soil conditions in deciduous woods and near stream and creek banks. Often the fabled Morel mushrooms can be found near or in wild leek colonies as well as Fiddleheads, another wild food spring delicacy. Native wildflowers such as trout lily and trillium can share the same ground.
Wild leeks, members of the large lily family of plants, are related to their domesticated garden variety cousins. However, wild leeks are extremely difficult to grow in a backyard vegetable garden. Additionally, there is absolutely no comparison in taste.
Wild leeks were well known to the Native Americans who used the herb for medicinal purpose as well as for culinary uses. The early settlers learned much of the same from the natives. Ever since, the leeks have been collected, sold, cooked, pickled, frozen and dried.
There are festivals and community events centered on their woodland emergence in many communities, principally in the Appalachian areas. It is not uncommon to find Ham and Leek Dinner signs in front of volunteer fire departments or social halls.
There is little waste with the wild leeks. Both the scallion like white bulb, and the leaves of the leek are edible. Wild leeks to some have a strong flavor, describe as a pungent garlic-onion like taste. They are a good source of Vitamins A and C and other important minerals.
The wild leeks are one of the first plants greening the woods after the snow melt. Leeks have a distinctive two, or three, light green, smooth leaves which are attached to a purplish colored stem. Break off a leaf and you should be able to smell the pungent garlic-onion aroma even though the leaf isn't quite as strong tasting as the white bulb.
For most, the best flavor is in the early spring and before the plant begins to blossom. They can be difficult to dig sometimes so a shovel is a good idea to take into a woods. Always check with property owners or local laws governing collections of wild plants. Don't try to dig up an entire patch and over-harvest the crop.
Wild leeks reseed after the distinctive white flowers bloom which begins to develop soon after the leaves on the trees in woods form a dense canopy blocking the sunlight. The white blossoms appear in mid-summer. The black seeds which form in the flower are then released for the next generation.
The wild leeks then begin to revert back into dormancy to re-emerge again the following spring after snow melt.