UNIVERSITY PARK — 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 to manage and perhaps protect them. So, with a Specialty Crop Block Grant, they funded a novel, interdisciplinary study led by researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. In addition to assessing supply and demand, researchers will analyze the plant's phytochemistry and nutritional makeup.
The study, which starts this month, will also evaluate ramps' vulnerability to a new exotic pest, the allium leaf miner — which threatens onion and garlic crops. Researchers want to know if ramps may be a host for the invasive insect from Europe, and whether leaf miners may be spreading by leap-frogging from one patch of wild ramps to another.
The allium leaf miner was found in leeks and onions collected in December 2015 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and was the first confirmed infestation in the Western Hemisphere. The insect is native to Poland and Germany, but recently its range has been expanding rapidly. The allium leaf miner is now present throughout Europe and has recently been reported in Asia.