Identifying wild leeks
Wild leeks (allium tricoccum) are also commonly referred to as ‘ramps’ or ‘wild garlic’. However, wild garlic is an entirely different plant. Wild leeks can be harvested in spring, usually about 4 to 6 weeks after the snow disappears. Wild leeks are easy to spot – covering the forest floor (plentiful in maple forests) in patches of bright green, and not that much unlike tulip leaves. These spring vegetables are in popular demand and concerns around the viability of their commercial harvest do exist. Wild leeks have a 7 to 10 year cycle, from seed to seed. If you tend to a wild leek patch – and you are certain no one else is snacking from it – you can savely harvest up to 5% of its bounty. If you own or your community has rights to access the land on which you harvest, you are in an excellent position to monitor the wild leek patch size and health over the years and that way and secure the sustainability of your harvest. In Quebec the overharvest of wild leeks has let to a ban and fines are readily given to those who harvest, sell or cook them for commercial purposes.
Sustainable wild leek harvest
When digging your leeks, carefully dig a narrow path towards the centre of the patch, lifting the leeks up and out while gently handling the leaves so that they don’t bruise. A 3’ garden fork does a good job. Damp soil is best to work with, as dry hard soil makes it hard to separate the leek roots from the ground.
If you come across leeks with flower buds appearing, give them a pass if possible, as they are just about to flower and produce seed. If you are only interested in the greens, cut them off of the bulb leaving the bulb in the ground. This will allow the bulbs to regenerate and provide green shoots next year. If you are a regular visiter to this forest, try to remember to gather the seeds in September and scatter in any local hardwood bush. In 4 or 5 years you will see your new wild leek patch.
Cleaning, storing and shipping wild leeks
When you return to the kitchen, wash the leaves and bulbs well and store in a plastic bag or similar container in the fridge or cooler. Leave the roots attached to the bulbs. If you leave them out or not covered, the leaves will wilt and dry out. Wild leeks can last in the fridge for a week or so and this means you will need a ready buyer before you set out to harvest. Bulbs can be kept in the freezer and cooked or pickled at a later time.
If you are taking these leeks to market, try to reach your buyer as soon as possible so they remain cool and damp. If shipping, you can stow the plastic bags (tops open) in coolers and ship on the bus or with a fast courier service. Leave them loose and don’t try to sqeeze them in the coolers. Some couriers and bus drivers may reject wild leeks because of their rather strong aroma. Drive them yourself or find a local farmer who is going to market.
Prices and customers
Prices for wild leeks at the bush/farm gate tend to be from $3.50 to $4.50 lb. Wholesale prices tend to be arround $6 to $8.50 lb. Restaurants typically pay from $8 to $12 lb depending on the quality and availability. At some of the high end farmers markets, a small bunch can run as high as $6, translating into $30 lb for the vendor.
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