Lessons from Ramps


The humble onion is something we often take for granted. The many roots of the genus Allium bring some of the best dishes flavor while generally remaining quite cheap. Common alliums you might find in your supermarket are onions, garlic, shallots, leeks and chives, but there are a host of wild onion variants as well—most notably, the ramp.

Ramps (Allium tricoccum), are found growing in the wild throughout the United States. They are some of the first edible bulbs to mature in spring and only stick around for around a month. In the days before supermarkets and hyper-industrialized agriculture, ramps were generally the first fresh vegetable some would be able to enjoy after a long winter. Ramps also have played a role in our local Chicago history. Research suggests that the Indigenous name for the place where our city stands today was “shikaakwa” or “chicagoua,” the native name for ramps.

Though these small vegetables have deep roots in the history of North America, they’ve weaved in and out of popularity as times have changed, for a variety of reasons. Today, ramps are an obsession of chefs and foodies. Their limited and early availability gives them the kind of status reserved for morel mushrooms and other hard-to-find ingredients.

An Obstinate Onion

Aside from their desirable flavor, what truly makes ramps special is their persnickety nature, and the balance of fortitude and care which must be exercised when harvesting them. In order to cultivate ramps yourself, you need a patch of soil with an ideal balance of nutrients, pH, and sunlight. If you have the root end of a wild ramp, planting it in that ideal patch of soil might give you your own ramp harvest...but you’ll have to wait 2-3 years. If you plant ramp seeds in that ideal patch, your wait time could be as long as 7 years.

The best way to enjoy ramps right now is to visit a higher-end grocery store, but you may be surprised to find yourself paying $1 per ramp—and they’re not very large. Why so expensive? Because, more likely than not, someone foraged that allium. That’s right. Someone went out into the forest, found a patch of ramps, and brought them to a distributor.

And it’s not so simple, harvesting ramps. If you find a patch of these prized onion-cousins, it’s possible to pick them out whole. You’ll find yourself with a big bundle of fragrant bulbs and leaves—roots and all. But taking the roots out of the ground means fewer ramps next year. The more sustainable solution is to dig around the root, slice the bulb before the root tip, and leave the root underground. It takes time, but it ensures you don’t deplete your unruly patch of ramps.

Layers of Learnings

There are many lessons to be gleaned from learning about this wild allium. It’s a beautiful reminder of the fleeting, delicate nature of life and the cycles which drive it. And like many life lessons, these may also be applied to business, tech, culture, and design—things we tend to focus on here.

1. Long-Term Thinking

Ramps take time to grow. From seed, it could take 7 years or more for your to reap your harvest. Remember what you have beneath the surface, even when you can’t see it. Even if it won’t be ready for the world for weeks, months, or years. Continue providing the care your organization or individual self needs to keep growing.

2. Knowing your Limits

If you plant ramps, it’s entirely possible that all the seeds will die and you will have nothing. If you go out and forage for ramps, it’s possible you may come home with zero ramps. Know that you are limited in your control of unpredictable forces and plan accordingly.

3. Creating a Positive Environment

Special ingredients require special conditions. Ramps generally only grow in the wild in a precise environment. The right soil, shade, moisture, pH—any number of factors—will determine how well ramps grow. The right variables for ramps are opaque, but for most other challenges, the requirements for success are well documented. Do everything you can to create a space suitable for growth and prosperity.

4. The Value of Scarcity & Ephemera

Ramps are the diamonds of the allium family: they occur with abundance, but factors like access and high demand make them expensive. Unlike diamonds, however, ramps are not forever. They’re only around for a few weeks each year. Companies like Snap Inc. have taken a cue from the ephemeral nature of things such as ramps, and changed the landscape of social media. By focusing on content that does not last forever, they’ve made moments more valuable by limiting access.

5. The Importance of Process & Sustainability

Harvesting ramps must be an exercise in restraint. The eye is often eager beyond the capacity of the stomach. The temptation to take more than you need is great, but the temptation to take what you need fast is greater. Quickly pulling up the root of a ramp means there will likely be no replacement the following year. Taking the time to carefully slice off the bulb while leaving the root tip underground means you get ramps this year and next year, without depleting the population. Using precise, appropriate processes that allow you to continue growing steadily is also a good strategy for learning (practicing well vs. practicing a lot).

6. Finding the Right Tools

To properly harvest ramps via the method described above, it might be helpful to have the proper tools. Your hands are neither sharp nor precise enough. A dull knife might damage the root beyond repair. A hori hori gardening knife, which is rounded for digging and sharp enough to make delicate cuts, should be just right. For issues unrelated to ramps, make sure you’re prepared with the proper tools, and make sure they’re sharp.

7. Take Risks, Seize the Opportunity

Though you may know of ramps in your vicinity, you may need to travel a distance to find them. You may also need to venture into the woods and scour the area in order to find them. With some hard work, you might just be rewarded, but things don’t always work out. Hedge your bets in any risky situation by doing research to improve your outcomes.

Most importantly however, don’t sleep on an opportunity. Ramps are only in season for a few weeks. Some of the best things in this world are even more fleeting.

John BergholzS4DC