It’s near the end of April, which means we’re heading into peak leek season! Sometimes referred to as a “ramp,” this wild vegetable can be harvested each year from usually the middle/end of April to the end of May. Now that they’re ready to harvest, today I went leeking (yes, it’s a verb in our family) with my mom and cousin!
All About Wild Leeks
Wild leeks belong to the onion family. They have a pungent smell and a flavor that’s a cross between onion and garlic. The bulbs are small, white, and rectangular like a scallion. The leaves are bright green and an inch or two thick, and grow to about four or six inches high when at their ideal picking stage. The leaves, bulb, and stem are all edible and have a distinct leek flavor, which is strongest in the bulb.
They’re often the first bunches of leafy green you’ll see on the forest floor in spring. Their leaves die off in the heat of summer, and just the flowers remain.
Wild leeks are pretty popular all over the East Coast. Gourmet restaurants use them in fancy dishes, most of which I can’t pronounce. And apparently ramp festivals are common in the Appalachians! I laughed at the idea at first, then remembered that we have a festival here dedicated to cauliflower.
Unfortunately, wild leeks are so loved in some parts of the country that they’re overharvested and dying out. We’re blessed with a happy population, but it’s important to harvest carefully to protect them.
Part of the reason for their shortage, it seems, is how long they take to propagate: it can take 5-7 years for their full life cycle! The leek seed remains dormant for two years before emerging, and then it’s typically 2-3 years before they’re ready to harvest.
How to Find Them
We have a hefty patch of them in our woods, so we never have to go far. If you also own woodland, especially near a stream, you probably have some too!
Be careful if you’re new to harvesting wild leeks or are searching a new area- there are many poisonous plants like leeks, such as Indian Poke and lily-of-the-valley. A giveaway is the appearance and smell. Only a leek will smell like an onion. If it does, you’re probably good.
Don’t go overkill picking them, though. You don’t need many for a delicious meal or two, and you should always leave plenty behind so they can continue to prosper.
If you don’t own woodlands, you can always ask a friend or family member with some if you can harvest a few of their leeks. Don’t trespass or go leeking on state land. If you don’t know anyone with leeks on their property, you can try local farmer’s markets in season.
Harvesting Wild Leeks & Their Storage
There are three common methods for harvesting wild leeks:
1. Cutting just a leaf. This leaves the bulb intact and doesn’t kill the plant. Each plant consists of a bulb and typically two or three leaves. By taking just one leaf, the bulb and remaining leaf can continue their life cycle. This is the ideal way to harvest, especially if you have a failing or overharvested leek patch.
2. Cutting the bulb with a knife. Using a sharp knife, cut the bulb underground at an angle, leaving part of the root intact. This allows you to take the leaves and part of the bulb while leaving the remainder to grow back next year.
3. Digging the whole leek. If you have a truly prosperous patch, you can use this method, but it isn’t as sustainable as the other options. Take a shovel along, and dig deep, making sure to get a good hold on the leeks before pulling them out. Only attempt this if you have a very large patch and use just a handful each year.
Never pick too many at a time – leeks spoil quickly. It’s best to use wild leeks fresh, but you can also keep unwashed ones in the refrigerator for a day or two. Unless you’re really into them, a couple handfuls are more than enough to use in that time.
Leeks can be eaten raw or cooked into other dishes. Our family cookbook recounts older family members eating the leaves raw on buttered bread back in the ’40s and ’50s. I’ve never tried it, and I’m not sure I’d want to.
In cooking, leeks can be diced and used like onions or garlic, but in smaller quantities since they’re so strong. My grandmother recommended soaking them in cold water and washing them well, since dirt gets stuck between the rings and leaves.
Looking for a great recipe that uses some? Check out my grandmother’s Potato Leek Soup!