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Thursday
Apr212011

Wild Leeks (Allium tricoccum)

Well, the wild leeks are ready for harvesting now. Wild leeks, also called ramps, grow in rich, moist forests and are one of the first plants to emerge in the spring. They are spring ephemerals – they come up quickly in early spring and die back by early summer when the leaf canopy of the forest is out.

Wild leeks are both an edible and medicinal. Their taste is spicy, hot and somewhere between garlic and onion. Being one of the first wild greens to come up, they where traditionally used as a spring tonic. After eating only what could be stored over the long winter months, wild leeks where a welcomed and much needed addition to the diet. They are packed with vitamins and minerals (such as vitamins A, C, selenium, chromium and chlorophyll) and also have excellent healing properties. They help to clear out stagnation in the body both physically and energetically. After the contraction and introspection of winter, they help us move into the energetics of spring which is all about rebirth, growth, inspiration and new ideas.

To harvest wild leeks for medicine or food, use only the leaves and leave the bulbs in the ground so the plant can continue to live and reproduce. Pick only one leaf from some of the plants in a colony and then move on to the next. Reach into a colony from the outskirts and do not step into the patch as you could be crushing bulbs underneath. Please be mindful of your impact on the soil and other plants around the leeks as well. Use a sharp knife or scissors to harvest the leaves to minimize trauma to the plant.

For medicine, gather the leaves when they are about 2/3rds their full size. Taste them to verify their strength. They should be quite hot and spicy. If they lack the zing then either they’re past their prime or it’s not a good year for their medicine. The potency of their medicine varies from year to year, so if you try the leaves and they’re not potent, you’ll have to leave them until the next year. It’s best to gather the leaves after a couple of sunny days. If it has rained recently the leeks will be too waterlogged and will lack potency. Generally a really wet, overcast, cold spring does not make for the best leek medicine, or food for that matter.

Wild leeks are being over-harvested and are considered to be a ‘species of conservation concern’ by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. If you gather the leeks as I have described above, they will be around for the life of the forest.

Wild leeks add freshness and zippy yumminess to a meal. When hiking in the wilds I like to put a leaf or two in my sandwich. You can use them fresh in salads or on sandwiches or use them in soups, stews, stir-fries, etc. If you use them in cooking, add them in at the last minute as they lose their flavour if overly cooked.  

As medicine, wild leek needs to be used fresh or as a fresh leaf tincture. It can be used similarly to garlic as it has many of the same constituents. It is effective internally for a number of different conditions such as poor circulation, infections of the respiratory system, and digestive difficulties and infections. Externally, it can be used for sprains, bruises and rheumatic pains.

Though few animals and bugs seem to gnaw on wild leek, I have noticed a few times signs that the leaves were eaten by deer. I imagine that the deer were using the leeks as medicine and not so much for culinary purposes – perhaps they had some intestinal parasite or digestive troubles after the long winter – but who knows…maybe the deer people like a little spiciness in their lives too! 

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