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Ramp It Up!

College researchers take a new look at the commercial market for a perennial favorite.

A good way to describe ramps, it has been said, is to note what they are not. Ramps are not leeks, nor are they scallions or shallots. Ramps look like scallions, but they're smaller and have one or two broad, flat leaves.

Among the first green things to pop out of the ground in the spring across the sprawling forests of Appalachia, ramps (Allium tricoccum) taste stronger than leeks, which generally have a mild onion flavor, and are more "garlicky" than a scallion. As such, the uniquely pungent plant has become the darling of chefs and foodies and a much-sought-after commodity.

All the attention on ramps of late has convinced Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture officials that they need to know more about the market for ramps and the wild stocks of the plants. So, with a Specialty Crop Block Grant, they funded a study led by researchers in the college. In addition to assessing supply and demand, the researchers are analyzing the plant's phytochemistry and nutritional makeup.

The study is also evaluating ramps' vulnerability to a new exotic pest, the allium leafminer, which threatens onion and garlic crops.

"There have been only two studies done on ramp chemistry, so we don't know much about them as an edible plant," said Eric Burkhart, co-lead researcher and instructor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management.

To investigate the trade in ramps, the researchers are working to identify harvesters and forest-based producers in the state who are involved in the sale and trade of ramps at farmers markets, grocery stores, and restaurants.

Ramps have a purported medicinal aspect as well. "Because the knowledge of ramps' nutritional and medicinal composition is limited, our research will quantify phytochemicals of importance to both flavor profile and human health as they vary in relation to plant stage and seasonality," said Joshua Lambert, associate professor of food science, the other co-lead researcher of the project.

-- Jeff Mulhollem