Recording Ramp Data

National Study of Ramps Adds Additional Northern Michigan Sites

Northern Michigan has added additional sites in Benzie, Leelanau and Wexford counties to a national study of ramps/wild leeks that is being conducted through a partnership with Virginia Tech, the U.S. Forest Service and the Institute for Sustainable Foraging. The study, the first of its kind conducted in multiple states, is designed to examine the long-term impact of ramp harvesting on plant populations in an effort to better understand what methods and other factors may be necessary to insure the sustainability of plant populations over time. In addition to revisiting research sites established last year, the partners added sites on the Huron-Manistee National Forest, a Leelanau Conservancy Preserve and a woodlot owned by Food For Thought.

Dr. Michelle Baumflek, an Ethnobotanist, along with Dr. James Chamberlain, a Research Forest Products Technologist, both from the Southern Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service, have been engaged for the last two weeks in revisiting and establishing study plots in northern Michigan where ramps have been traditionally and will continue to be harvested for commercial purposes. These sites will also be studied in subsequent years to examine the effect that foraging may have on plant populations, density, size and other factors in an effort to determine how they may be sustainably harvested.

Recording Ramp Data

“While trained as a traditional forester, it didn’t take long for me to take an interest in all the other products, aside from timber, that our forests produce and that people find useful,” says Dr. Chamberlain, “Being close to Appalachia, ramps were of particular interest due to their long role in the culture of the people of that area. I’ve been studying them for over 15 years now and we still need more specific botanical information. This study will help to get that.”

Dr. Baumflek spoke to her excitement of seeing the prolific nature of the ramp patches in northern Michigan. “In North Carolina, where I’ve been doing much of my work, ramps rely on altitude and other unique factors to grow, make their distinct areas smaller and more confined than here in this part of Michigan. It’s amazing to see such large and healthy populations of ramps covering the forest floor in a given area like you have here in Michigan.”

The research will also help to inform the Standards and Practices for the Institute’s “Certified Sustainably Foraged” program.

Green forest canopy with white Garlic Mustard flowers

RAMPS VS. GARLIC MUSTARD

In reviewing what little research exists in regard to ramps/wild leeks, their habitat and their reproduction in the wild, a recurring theme emerged. A number of researchers, enthusiasts, foragers and foresters frequently mentioned garlic mustard (alliaria petiolata) in some context. Often, they were simply making the reader aware of the invasive nature of garlic mustard, and the fact that, while it is entirely edible, and some people find it quite satisfying as a foraged food, it is also a fiercely invasive and non-native species which has been known to entirely cover the forest floor crowding out virtually all native plant species in the process.

Green forest canopy with white Garlic Mustard flowers

Green forest canopy with white Garlic Mustard flowers

You might ask how a plant could be so damaging to the natural environment and why it can so readily take hold of a given area and crowd out all of it’s native “competitors?” Garlic mustard is a plant in the mustard family that is native to Europe, west Asia, parts of NW Africa and a few other areas including western China. The plant is considered allelopathic, meaning that it exudes chemicals that repress the growth of most other plants. This feature is not uncommon for some of our country’s other non-native and invasive species such as spotted knapweed. However, because garlic mustard loves the forest floor, there is probably no single greater threat to the natural plants of that ecosystem such as the spring ephemerals we all love including trillium, trout lily, and wild leeks/ramps.

While ironically, both wild leeks/ramps and garlic mustard have names that  refer back to their garlic-like smell and taste – “allium/alliaria”, they seem to have a less than symbiotic relationship. In fact, multiple observers of the forest floor will tell you that where you find high density, healthy area of ramps, you rarely if ever find garlic mustard. The question remains as to whether or not this is due to some resistance that ramps might show to the allelopathic elements exuded by the garlic mustard plant, or if it’s simply the result of forest areas that have not been disturbed in a manner that garlic mustard has been allowed to be introduced.

In contrast, a forest floor covered in a blanket of ramps.

In either case, the suggestion is that areas of high quality and sufficiently dense ramp populations seem to guard against the invasion of garlic mustard. Given the damaging nature of garlic mustard on native forest plants, a better understanding of this relationship is certainly worthy of investigation. Regardless of the reason, should a means by which to discourage the introduction of garlic mustard be discovered, it could be enormously helpful in the fight to eradicate this plant’s damage to our forest environments. Further, should allelopathic elements of some yet unknown source be inherent in ramps (allium triccocum) that guard against the invasive nature of garlic mustard, then further scientific investigation of those properties could lead to a natural means to eradicate garlic mustard or at least to help to eradicate it and the extreme damage its known to inflict on once healthy forest ecological communities throughout the country.

The Institute plans to begin research in this area by establishing test plots where a variety of relationships between ramps and garlic mustard occur and begin to further investigate this apparently unique relationship.