When the shadbush begins to bloom, and the flicker sounds his quick-wick-wick-wick-wick call throughout our woods, showing his white rump as he flies off, and sometimes flashing his gorgeous yellow underwings, it’s time to hunt for ramps. The northern flicker is a large woodpecker that usually overwinters in these parts, though the birds that spend the winter here are not necessarily the same birds we had with us in the summer, as the population of flickers has shifted south in the fall. True of other year-round resident birds as well, such as crows and blue jays, though some, like owls, remain on their breeding ranges all year long.
Lately I’ve been enjoying the courtship displays of flickers high up in a cottonwood tree near my house. Two males were competing for the attention of a female flicker. They thrust their heads forward and bobbed from side to side and up and down, while fanning tails and wings to show their brilliant gold undersides. The eastern race of the northern flicker is called “yellow-shafted” in reference to these bright-hued feathers. Thoreau’s journal entry for March 17, 1858 is such a vivid celebration of the flicker that I must include it here: “Ah! there is the note of the first flicker…heard far over and through the dry leaves. But how that single sound peoples and enriches all the woods and fields! They are no longer the same woods and fields that they were. This note really quickens what was dead. It seems to put life into withered grass and leaves and bare twigs, and henceforth the days shall not be as they have been. It is as when a family, your neighbors, return to an empty house after a long absence, and you hear the cheerful hum of voices and the laughter of children, and see the smoke from the kitchen fire. The doors are thrown open, and children go screaming through the hall. So the flicker dashes through the aisles of the grove, throws up a window here and cackles out it, and then there, airing the house. It makes its voice ring upstairs and downstairs, and so…fits it for its habitation and ours, and takes possession. It is as good as a housewarming to all nature.”
But to return to ramps! They are also called “wild leeks,” and have been gathered with gusto as the first greens of spring throughout their range (eastern North America from Georgia to southern Canada) by mountaineers, country folk, and native people ever since this continent has been inhabited. “Ramps” comes from ramson (“son of the Ram”), a name given to a related plant in Europe, because it usually appears under the sign of Aries, the ram, from March 20 to April 20.
Ramp gathering has been a spring ritual for me since I first tasted them in the Catskills 16 years ago. Look for them along the banks of streams in the forest, where their bright green oblong leaves, in pairs or threes, are conspicuous against the drab brown of dead leaves. If you have any doubt about their identity, work your fingers down into the soil along the plants stem, till you reach the bulb above its fibrous roots. Pull it up and smell it to confirm that it is indeed a wild member of the onion/garlic (also lily) family. Cut or break off the base of the bulb with the roots attached to it, and replant that, in keeping with the practice of the Cherokee people, to insure that there will be more ramps to pick in the future.
Since ramp season coincides with trout season in the mountains, some anglers like to indulge in eating raw ramps while out fishing. Since one who samples ramps raw will bear their distinctive odor on her breath for some time afterward, it’s said that all members of a fishing party should partake, if any do! But cooking a mess of freshly picked ramps, which I like to do by braising them in olive oil, takes away their sharpness, and gives them a sweet, nutty flavor. So if you can find some ramps, in a place where it’s safe and permissible to pick them, before June, when their yellowish flowers appear in ball-shaped clusters, I heartily recommend that you try them, too. All you need is a spirit of adventure and the patience to work the small bulbs free of tree roots and stones, and you can enjoy a wild repast that is the taste of spring itself. As for your gathering place, you might want to keep that to yourself…
Richard Parisio is a lifelong naturalist, educator and writer. He currently leads field trips for school classes at Mohonk Preserve, teaches courses about John Burroughs and conducts tours of Slabsides and the John Burroughs Sanctuary for groups and individuals by request. Rich is New York State coordinator for River of Words, a national poetry and art program on the theme of watersheds, and teaches River of Words programs for school classes, grades K-12, by request. Contact Rich (firstname.lastname@example.org) with questions, comments, or suggestions for Nature at Your Doorstep.