Ramp Fests Add Flavor, Stench, to Appalachian Spring

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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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