Ramp Fests Add Flavor, Stench, to Appalachian Spring

John Roach
for National Geographic News
April 29, 2005
On Sunday, Cathey Owens vows to give the ramps on her dinner plate to
the first person who will take the onionlike herbs. With upward of 3,000
people expected to attend the 52nd annual Cosby Ramp Festival in Cosby,
Tennessee, finding a taker should be easy.

"If you eat one, you're going to stink, and the more you eat, the more you're going to stink," said Owens, who is helping to organize the annual event in Cosby.

Some people like ramps and others don't, Owens said. She doesn't. But she likes the festival, which is a time to celebrate the arrival of spring and the cultural history of Appalachia.

Also known as wild leeks, ramps are members of the same family as garlic, scallions, and onions. Poking up through leaf litter on the forest floor, their green circles of sword-shaped leaves are among the first signs of spring in the region. Once the trees turn fully green and block the sun, the ramps go away for another year.

The vegetable's taste is described as an appetizing mixture of its kin: garlicky onion. The smell is what keeps some would-be connoisseurs at bay. It's pungent and can linger for days.

The smell oozes out of the pores of sweaty folk. In years past, schoolchildren who gorged on the spring veggies were often excused from classes for several days. "You can imagine in a one-room classroom—especially with little boys getting overheated—and what that smelled like," Owens said.

Ramps are native to eastern North American mountains. The plants are found in moist deciduous (non-evergreen) forests as far north as Canada, as far south as North Carolina and Tennessee, and as far west as Missouri and Minnesota.

The first European settlers here are thought to have learned to eat ramps from Native Americans. Both groups presumably saw the herbs as a spring tonic rich in vitamins and minerals after a long winter without fresh vegetables.

Ramp Festivals

The Cosby Ramp Festival is one of about a dozen held in small towns throughout Appalachia this time of year. Most come replete with ramp-based foods, arts-and-crafts vendors, music, and dancing.

"It's just a big celebration of spring," Owens said.

On Saturday the Swiss-themed village of Helvetia, West Virginia, will hold its annual ramp dinner. Sandy Burky, a community volunteer, said that about 300 people are expected to attend the feast of potatoes, coleslaw, applesauce, ham, and of course, fried and fresh ramps.

The idea of a ramp dinner is "very typical Appalachian, versus the culture here, which is Swiss," Burky said, noting that the ramps are "prepared very Swiss-like in part and function, because all of us have Swiss heritage."

According to Burky, the timing of a ramp festival depends on a town's elevation and on how far north or south the town is. Those factors govern when the snow melts and therefore when the ramps grow. Ramp festivals generally are held in April or early to mid May.

The differing dates of these spring celebrations allow people to go "ramp-festival hopping," Burky said. Additional upcoming festivals include the Wild Foods and Ramp Cook-Off in Deep Creek Lake State Park, Maryland, tomorrow; the Flag Pond Ramp Festival in Flag Pond, Tennessee, on May 14; and the Whitetop Mountain Ramp Festival in Whitetop, Virginia, on May 15.

Too Tasty for Their Own Good?

Over the last few decades, ramp festivals have evolved into big tourist attractions, drawing thousands of people into small towns of Appalachia. Now some people are concerned that the intensive harvesting for these festivals is endangering the abundance of wild ramps. (There is only one known ramp farm in the world, in West Virginia. All other harvesting is done in the wild.)

In 2002 pressure on the wild ramp population in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina led the Park Service to ban all ramp harvests there. As a result, more people are now collecting ramps in nearby national forests.

Wild-ramp harvesters usually dig small clumps of ramps out of larger patches of the plants. That process should leave behind enough individual ramps to form new patches with their seeds and roots. (Ramps reproduce from seeds and rhizomes, rootlike stems that run underground.)

James Chamberlain is a research forest products technologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Blacksburg, Virginia. Since 2000 he has spent the months of April and May in the Appalachian Mountains digging ramps with festival organizers.

He hopes to learn how to manage wild ramps to make sure there are plenty of the stinky vegetables for generations to come. His data show that, in total, the major Appalachian ramp festivals go through about 3,200 pounds (1,450 kilograms) of ramps each spring.

But even Chamberlain admits that it's not yet clear what that number tells us. "We just don't know if the current levels of ramp harvesting are sustainable or not," he said in a media statement.

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