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.
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 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.