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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Spring's early bounty: finding wild leeks (repost)

This post originally appeared on April 28, 2011. Since spring has apparently come early to Michiganand the leeks are already popping up (trust us)we thought it made sense to republish now rather than wait until April as originally planned. 

By Alexander Atkin

Wild leeks—also known as ramps, spring onion, ramson, and wild garlic—can be found in forests from South Carolina all the way north to where the taiga forest begins in Canada.

Among the first to shoulder out of the cold early Spring soil, leeks are abundant in forests all over West Michigan. Typically occurring in patchy oases, they are easily spied by their bifurcated broad green leaves which look somewhat similar to those of lilies.

Sheathed Leek
Though shallow-rooted, leeks are not particularly easy to unearth. A small garden spade will do the trick. When uprooted, the bulb is covered by a dirt-sodden sheath which is easily removed.

The exposed bulb; oniony goodness
While the entire leek plant is edible, the bulb is most prized. With a pungent garlic-onion aroma and flavor, these wild members of the onion family make a spectacular addition to any dish that might normally call for onions. If cleaned and refrigerated, leeks will keep for months. I usually have some left to enjoy all the way through the fall, if I can manage to use them sparingly.
Chicago's Namesake?

Traveling the area near the southern terminus of Lake Michigan in the 17th century, French explorer René-Robert Cavelier named the area Chicago after the name given to wild leeks by the local natives. The naturalist noted the area's dense growth of the vegetable.

Responsible Foraging

Foraging is a part of humanity as ancient as any other. Taking a few hours to walk in woodlands and find wild edibles is a rewarding experience, and a rare chance to reconnect to once-common traditions now nearly lost in the wake of modern civilization.

Take care to follow a reliable guide as there are sometimes poisonous mimics to certain plants and fungi. However, wild leeks have no closely resembling species, so the risk of mistakenly bringing home something else is very low. If you wish to forage on private lands, be sure to obtain permission beforehand. No wild edible is worth dodging bullets.

Lastly, take only what you and your family can reasonably consume. You may come across patches of several hundred leeks, but there are areas of the country that have known exploitation and local extinction. A good forager always leaves some behind to maintain the species and natural balance of the ecosystem.

Alexander Atkin forages for wild edibles in and around Grand Rapids. On Saturday afternoons you can find him tending bar at Brewery Vivant. Stop in for a beer and maybe he'll tell you his favorite place to hunt for wild leeks and other edibles (but probably not). 

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